The Daily Beet

24 Jul Firefighters at harrowing risk for heart disease

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Did you know that the number one cause of in-the-line-of-duty deaths for firefighters isn’t exposure to fire, but  heart disease? Some people may be shocked to hear this, but as an active firefighter who is constantly being exposed to the culinary habits of firehouses, I find it far from shocking. In fact, as Spock would say, “it’s quite logical”, considering the amount of meat, dairy, fried foods, and refined garbage that I see firefighters toss down their gullets. It amazes me that their arteries hold up as long as they do — and apparently, for an increasing number of these men and women, their arteries are holding up less and less.

Heart attacks are the #1 killer of Fire Fighters and Americans.

Heart attacks are the #1 killer of Fire Fighters and Americans.

I came across the following article the other day and thought you might find it interesting.

Firefighter‘ would be near the top of most people’s lists of dangerous professions, but many of those people would be surprised that there’s something that poses a greater risk to those brave men and women than smoke and flames.

Nearly half of all firefighter deaths don’t come from burns, collapsing roofs, or smoke inhalation. They die of the same thing the rest of us do: heart disease.

A while back, CBS 2 told you about how firefighters were getting a simple test to find out if they were at risk. It’s probably saved many of their lives, and it could save yours too.

They put their lives on the line fighting fires and rescuing victims. They risk burns, smoke inhalation, and the dangers of collapsing buildings, but face an even greater threat. Myocardial infarctionheart attacks – and these gentlemen are at high risk of having an event during or right after battling the flames,” Dr. Elliott Brown, of St. Joseph’s Medical Center, said.

The possibility makes sense, considering the more than 70 pounds of equipment they often carry into a fire – not to mention the incredible adrenaline stress that’s a part of the job. “We can go from being in a very relaxed position, to crawling around in a completely dark environment in a building that’s on fire within four minutes,” North Hudson Fire Dept. Capt. Brian McGorty said.

Capt. McGorty is one of the firefighters who took advantage of a statewide union initiative to get their firefighters educated about heart disease, and, just as importantly, screened. McGorty was one of more than 500 firefighters who got a calcium scan, a rapid CT that looks for an early sign of heart disease: calcified plaque in heart arteries. “These are patients we’ve been able to identify as needing, perhaps, cholesterol-lowering techniques such as diet, medication, exercise,” Dr. Brown said.

It turns out that nearly half of the hundreds of firefighters who got a calcium scan fall into that category of developing heart disease, and without any other symptoms. “You don’t know if you have a problem. You can be walking around and think you’re fine,” Montclair Fire Department Chief Kevin Allen said. “If you don’t go for a calcium screening to find out how you are for sure, then you won’t really know.”

So how does this affect the rest of us? Well, that five-minute calcium scan has become an accepted test for detecting early heart disease for everyone, not just firefighters. A high calcium score means you should be more aggressive in prevention efforts, including more exercise and a better diet – or, if that doesn’t work, medication.

*I don’t agree with the medication part unless you’ve had a prior heart attack.



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Rip Esselstyn

As a firefighter for the Austin Fire Department, he helped people and saved lives. As a friend to other firefighters, he transformed the way Austin ’s Engine 2 firehouse ate in order to save a firefighting brother’s health. Now, as the author of The Engine 2 Diet, Rip is teaching people the irrefutable connection between what they put in their mouths and their ability to reach their ideal weight and their ideal health.

  • Svend

    Two observations:

    1. “These are patients we’ve been able to identify as needing, perhaps, cholesterol-lowering techniques such as diet, medication, exercise,” Dr. Brown said. It is nteresting diet was the first means to attack the problem mentioned as a solution by Dr Brown.

    2. From a relatively new volunteer firefighter’s perspective, based upon what I’ve seen the observations you shared are congruent with what I’ve seen, perhaps on a greater scale. The causes of firefighter fatalities are readily known and despite that widespread knowledge little personal/company effort is made to reduce fatalities in this area. A Firefighter/Company will spend an inordinant amount of time training/preparing to be ready, capable, and effective in a wide variety of emergency scenarios but absent a physically capable firefighter that training effort is of little value to the community.

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