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Using Stress To Protect Firefighters’ Hearts

Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock
Flickr-U.S. Air Force
Firefighters disproportionally experience cardiovascular events.

Pushed to the max in stressful situations, firefighters face a risk of sudden cardiac death that is three times higher than the rest of the population.

To reduce the danger, researchers have learned that sometimes, you must fight fire with fire.

Tiffany Lipsey, an exercise physiologist at Colorado State University, intentionally puts stress on the hearts of firefighters by running them on treadmills. The idea is to mimic the intense conditions firefighters would normally only encounter in the worst moments of battling a blaze.

Together with blood work and an underwater scale used to calculate the percentage of body fat, these stress tests can reveal if there are any problems, and point to things firefighters can do to reduce the risk of a heart attack.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Lipsey warns. In her decade of working with Colorado firefighters, she’s learned that hearts often aren’t as strong as they may appear.

“As much as we like them to be viewed as heroes, they’re still people, like the rest of us. They’re still Americans. And most Americans die from heart disease.”

Lipsey says heart disease accounts for about half of all on-duty firefighter deaths.

Only several hundred firefighters have access to the expertise at the CSU lab, but Lipsey encourages anyone going out to battle flames to be aware of their heart health numbers.

“Do I need to be exercising more or less, do I need to do something about my diet because my cholesterol is crazy, or my blood pressure is crazy? If they don’t know their numbers,” says Lipsey, “then they don’t know they need to do something.”

With federal health insurance likely to become an option for all firefighters soon, keeping tabs on cardiovascular health should become easier to do.

I am covering science stories at KUNC this summer as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow, a program that matches scientists with news outlets so that they can try their hand at translating science to regular folks. My normal day job is as a graduate student at Yale University, doing immunology research with Dr. David Schatz. Previously, I graduated from Haverford College, majoring in English and biology.
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