The United States Fire Administration names heart attacks as the leading cause of death for active-duty firefighters. In the last decade, about half of on-duty firefighter deaths were caused by heart attack. Despite these significant statistics, first responders know little about their cardiovascular risks. So why is this occupation so prone to sudden cardiac death – and what can be done to prevent it?
Firefighting is both a physically and emotionally demanding job. The dangerous work, heavy uniforms and overwhelming amount of stress cause strain on the heart. This strain, in conjunction with a toxic work environment – breathing in smoke, dehydration and gas exposure – can trigger a sudden cardiac episode.
"Firefighters are a unique group of tactical athletes who put their bodies through intense environments. They also have significant risk factors, such as smoking, obesity and hypertension. These cumulatively result in a significant risk of sudden cardiac death. This is why it is essential for first responders to proactively live a heart-healthy lifestyle. It starts with small changes. If you are not sure where to start, making an appointment to see a cardiologist is a great first step," says Jana Goldberg, MD, consultative cardiologist with the Penn Sports Cardiology and Fitness Program at Penn Medicine.
While not much can be done to change the environment firefighters work in, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has assembled a list of lifestyle changes that can help firefighters reduce their cardiac risks:
- When firefighting, wear SCBA from initial attack to completion of overhaul
- Exercise daily
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get adequate sleep
- Have an annual physical
- Monitor blood pressure
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Avoid tobacco use
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Maintain normal lipid levels
Penn Medicine is sponsoring a workshop by The First Twenty on Saturday, Feb. 9 from 8 am to 12 pm at the Simlow Auditorium in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. All first responders are welcome to attend at hear from Dr. Jana Goldberg and The First Twenty founder David Wurtzel, along with a keynote talk from Philadelphia Eagles Hall-of-Famer Brian Dawkins.
They will talk about how to protect yourself from cardiovascular disease and where to start in order to improve your physical and mental health. Following the talks, there will be a free heart screening courtesy of volunteer staff from Penn Heart and Vascular Center.