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Firefighter Killer: Heart Disease

Heart Disease Is Firefighters' Biggest On-Duty Death Risk

Saving Firefighters' Lives -- and Your Life continued...

For all these reasons, underlying heart disease adds a huge risk to an already risky job. That's why Rosenstock recommends that all fire departments should:

  • require firefighters to undergo prehire and annual medical examinations
  • implement wellness and fitness programs to reduce heart disease risk factors
  • require annual physical performance tests for all firefighters

Firefighters tend to be far fitter and healthier than civilians -- especially if they work full time at the job. But 70% of firefighters are volunteers.

"The fitness requirements at entry and continuing through working life are much higher on the career side than on the voluntary side," Rosenstock says. "Very few paid firefighters continue after age 50. But the volunteer work force is older -- and with age comes added risk."

This means that the biggest threat to firefighters may be the fire on the firehouse stove, says nutritionist David W. Grotto, RD, LDN. Grotto's book, 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life, is scheduled for release next year.

Grotto, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, remembers going to a Chicago firehouse last summer to teach a seminar on heart-healthy foods.

"The first day I went there, I smelled something like bacon cooking. It was a big pot of sausages and onions all swimming in butter," Grotto tells WebMD. "And as the firefighters gathered around for the seminar, another guy was making them grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread, slathered with margarine."

By the end of the summer, after getting the firefighters to cut back on fats and to eat more soluble fiber and more fruits and vegetable, the firefighters' cholesterol levels sank along with their heart risk.

Grotto didn't teach an exercise class. But he might have. He noticed that the couch in front of the station's huge television set got far more use than the station's weight room.

That lesson isn't just for firefighters. Anyone who leads a largely sedentary lifestyle is at serious risk of heart death with sudden, strenuous exercise.

"This study is a confirmation of what we know: that regular exercise is, in general, protective against heart disease," Kales says. "But if you are sedentary and suddenly embark on physical activity, there is definitely a risk there."

Proper diet and exercise lessens the risk of heart disease. But firefighters who already have heart disease may need to switch to less hazardous duty.

"If significant heart disease is diagnosed in a firefighter, given the dramatic risks involved in these duties, a very careful discussion has to go on in advising this person whether it is safe to return to duty," Kales says. "It is not the same as returning to a desk job after having a heart attack."

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