Police offices and firefighters over the age of 45 appear to have more risk factors for heart disease and stroke than people in any other profession, according to new research,
The study from the American Heart Association found that among police officers and firefighters, 90 percent were likely to be overweight or obese, 77 percent did not have ideal total cholesterol levels and 35 percent had high blood pressure.
To assess worker health, the researchers examined workers over the age of 45 for seven modifiable risk factors: blood pressure, body mass index, total cholesterol, blood sugar, physical activity, smoking and diet quality. Participants' health in each of the areas was scored as "ideal," "intermediate" or "poor."
Workers earned ideal scores if, without medicines, their blood pressure readings were lower than 120/80 mm Hg, total cholesterol was below 200 mg/dL, and/or blood glucose was lower than 100 mg/dL while fasting or 140 mg/dL without fasting. Besides nonsmoking status, other ideal traits were a body mass index below 25 and engaging in intense, break-a-sweat activity four or more times a week, including at work.
"Older U.S. workers are not destined by age to have a poor cardiovascular health profile, but some workers have more barriers to achieving ideal levels than others," Capt. Leslie MacDonald, the study's lead researcher and a senior scientist at the U.S. Public Health Service and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the Centers for Disease Control, said in a statement.
Employees in service occupations — including workers who prepare food, do building and grounds keeping, perform cleaning services, and deliver personal care — had the second highest risk for heart disease and stroke. The research found that this group of workers had the worst diet profile, with more nearly 80 percent having poor eating habits. [See Related Story: Desk Job? 7 Ways to Keep Healthy at Work ]
Sales workers and office and administrative support workers also had high risk for future heart disease. The study revealed that 69 percent of sales employees did not have ideal cholesterol, while 82 percent of office and administrative support workers did not do enough physical activity.
Those working in management or as white-collar professionals had better cardiovascular health than did employees in any other job. Specifically, one-third had ideal body mass, 75 percent were at least moderately active and only 6 percent were smokers.
That doesn't mean workers in these jobs excelled in all areas. Nearly three-quarters of white-collar professionals employed in business and finance had poor eating habits.
Health care practitioners —as well as employees in arts, entertainment, sports and media jobs — also rated well in cardiovascular health.
There are several reasons why certain occupations are more prone to health problems than others, the study's authors said. Certain conditions, such as long work hours and low job control, have been previously linked to metabolic and behavioral risk factors, which may contribute to the differences found in the study, the authors said.
Job stress may also deplete workers' resolve to prioritize their health, MacDonald said.
There are several small steps all workers, regardless of occupation, can take to improve their health. This includes using lunch breaks to go for walks, parking farther away from destinations or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. MacDonald said that, over time, these small steps will accumulate into improved health.
"It's important to take small steps and not get overwhelmed or discouraged," she said.
For the study, researchers evaluated 5,566 employed men and women who did not have a history of heart disease or stroke at the beginning of the study. The research team classified jobs using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics occupation groups, and accounted for differences among the groups in age, race, sex and whether workers lived in the Southeast, where stroke rates run high.