FRIDAY, July 13, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Police officers are at increased risk for developing a host of mental and physical health problems, including heart disease, sleep troubles, obesity and certain forms of cancer, new research shows.
In addition, suicide rates for officers on the job were more than eight times higher than among those who retired or left the police force, according to the researchers, from the University at Buffalo in New York.
"This is one of the first police population-based studies to test the association between the stress of being a police officer and psychological and health outcomes," the study's principal investigator, John Violanti, said in a university news release.
"Usually, health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, but here you have a health disparity caused by an occupation, highlighting the need to expand the definition of health disparity to include occupation as well," added Violanti, a former New York State trooper who is now a professor of social and preventive medicine in the university's School of Public Health and Health Professions.
In conducting the study, the researchers followed 464 members of the Buffalo Police Department over the course of five years to examine how their jobs affected their mental and physical health.
Daily job stress and night work, they found, contributed to an increased risk for metabolic syndrome, a group of symptoms that includes abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and stroke.
The study revealed that more than 25 percent of the officers examined had metabolic syndrome. In contrast, less than 19 percent of the general U.S. population has the condition. Meanwhile, nearly 47 percent of the officers worked a non-day shift, compared to just 9 percent of other U.S. workers.
"We found that, as a group, officers who work nights have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome than those who work day shifts," said Violanti.
The study also found that 40 percent of the police officers were obese, compared to 32 percent of the general population.
In addition, female officers reporting the highest levels of stress were four times more likely to have trouble sleeping and male officers who said they experienced the most stress were six times more likely to have poor sleep quality compared with the general U.S. population.
After 30 years of service, the study found, the officers were also at increased risk for Hodgkin's lymphoma and brain cancer.
The study authors pointed out that the culture of police work often prevents those in need from getting help.
"The police culture doesn't look favorably on people who have problems," explained Violanti. "Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you're an officer, but you fear asking for help."
The study authors added that chronic disease or mental health issues could take a toll on police officers' reputation and financial status.
"If you have heart disease, you may not be allowed to go back on the street," said Violanti. "That's a real threat. If you go for mental health counseling, you may not be considered for promotions and you may be shamed by your peers and superiors. In some cases, your gun can be taken away, so there is a real fear of going for help."
The researchers concluded that, as part of their training at the police academy, police officers should be taught to recognize signs of stress and to seek treatment. And police departments need training to make sure officers aren't afraid to ask for help, Violanti said.
The study is scheduled for publication in a special issue of the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about stress.