Night shifts, overtime, and shortened sleep can be a dangerous combination for police officers, according to research conducted by John Violanti. “These findings reinforce the scientific value of studying the effects of occupation on cardiovascular risk factors,” says Violanti.

U. BUFFALO (US)—Police officers who work the night shift are at an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a combination of unhealthful factors that raise the risk of cardiovascular disease.

John Violanti, research associate professor at the University at Buffalo and the study’s first author, says the findings could also help guide further investigation into the health of all first responders, “not only of police officers, but firefighters, emergency medical technicians, nurses, physicians, air traffic controllers, and the military.”

The study appears in the current issue of the Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health.

“These findings reinforce the scientific value of studying the effects of occupation on cardiovascular risk factors,” says Violanti.

“This is especially important in first responders, who are selected on initial good overall physical and mental health. Exploring specific job-related associations, such as shift work, add to the benefit of such investigations.”

The research is based on data from the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress study, which has been ongoing since 2003.

Metabolic syndrome is defined as abnormalities in any three of five important clinical measures: abdominal obesity, triglycerides, high-density lipoproteins (HDL), blood pressure, and fasting glucose level.

This baseline study involved 98 police officers who were selected randomly from a total of 934 officers.

Clinic personnel in UB’s Center for Preventive Medicine obtained a fasting blood sample, and measured systolic and diastolic blood pressure and waist circumference, and participants also completed an extensive questionnaire on demographics and lifestyles choices.

Researchers obtained day-by-day data on shift-work and overtime hours from payroll records. Results showed that overall, 30 percent of officers working the night shift had metabolic syndrome, compared to 21 percent in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is based on data collected from the overall general population.

However, officers in the night shift were younger on average than those working the day shift—36.5 years versus 42.6 years—but despite their younger age, the percentage with metabolic syndrome (30 percent) was higher than the 24-percent average for the 30-39 age group in the general population.

“This slightly higher prevalence at a younger age coincides with police mortality cohort studies, which found a higher risk of cardiovascular disease among younger officers,” explains Violanti. “This finding is in contrast to that in the general population, in which CVD risk increases with age.

“One potential explanation for this unusual finding is that midnight-shift officers were most likely to be sleep deprived because of difficulties associated with day sleeping.

“Sleep debt has been shown to have a harmful impact on carbohydrate metabolism and endocrine function, which could contribute to metabolic disorders.”

The percentages of several factors related to risk of metabolic syndrome were higher in night-shift officers than in the general population, as well as in day and evening-shift officers in the study:

  • 55 percent had elevated waist circumference, compared to 50 percent and 30 percent for women and men.
  • 50 percent had low HDL cholesterol levels, compared to 38 percent and 35 percent in women and men, respectively.
  • Hypertension and glucose intolerance, an indication of diabetes, were more prevalent in night-shift officers.

In addition, officers who worked midnight shifts and had less than six hours sleep had a significantly higher average of metabolic-syndrome components than those who worked day shifts.

“Results of this study, and possible future prospective studies, may add to our existing knowledge of the associations between shift work and cardiovascular health in high-risk occupations,” Violanti says.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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