“Being a firefighter increases my risk of heart disease and sudden cardiac death.”
Joe has been a firefighter for 20 years. Although he has attended funerals for fellow firefighters who died of sudden heart attacks, he doesn’t realize his own risk until his son, a medical student, tells him that 42% of firefighter deaths are caused by heart disease. What will Joe do?
“I love being a firefighter,” says Joe. “It’s an exciting job and satisfying to know I help others during critical times.” Then Joe pauses before continuing: “But I didn’t know that my career could put me at such high risk for suddenly dying from a heart attack.”
Joe’s right. Sudden cardiac death (SCD) is the main cause of death among firefighters, leading to about 45% of job-related deaths. The largest proportion of these deaths happen during fire suppression, when Joe and his colleagues are actively battling flames. Physical exertion, extreme stress, and exposure to dangerous smoke and chemicals all put pressure on the heart and cardiovascular system Even answering an alarm and getting to the scene cause the heart rate and blood pressure to soar. In fact, Joe had attended several funerals of firefighters who had died from a heart attack at a fire scene.
Joe’s son, Peter, is a medical student. When Peter told Joe about a study that showed 80% of deceased firefighters had calcification and plaque in the arteries of their hearts, along with enlarged hearts, Joe decided to find out about his own heart.
He’d just heard a radio interview with a cardiologist who encouraged people with risk factors to get a coronary artery calcium (CAC) score from an easy and fast heart scan. The cardiologist mentioned that HeartLung™ offered this scan, and would also provide an analysis of the lungs, bones, liver, and other structures. By using Artificial Intelligence to compare Joe’s scan against thousands of others, the results are accurate—and they’d be available to Joe and his health care provider within an hour. Joe found HeartLung™ online, then downloaded the app. He answered a few questions and located a nearby testing site. Within a few days, he had his scan. As soon as he saw the results, he contacted his physician; after 20 years of active duty as a firefighter, Joe’s CAC score of 222 showed that he did have a moderate level of heart disease.
With his physician, Joe discussed how to take every measure to prevent a heart attack and more calcification. He started to take a medication, called a statin, to decrease his cholesterol level. He also committed to a heart-healthy meal plan, such as the Mediterranean diet, and to lose the weight that he gradually gained over the years.
Although Joe gets a physical examination and laboratory work every year, there is no way to assess the coronary arteries—the blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients to the heart—without a heart scan. Modern technology, such as HeartLung™ uses, doesn’t require any injections or complicated procedures.
Recent articles in medical journals support including CAC scores with firefighter physical assessments. A paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine stated, “A coronary artery calcium scan may identify the firefighters at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.”
Ashen M, Carson K, Ratchford, E. Coronary Calcium Scanning and Cardiovascular Risk Assessment Among Firefighters. Am Journal Preventive Medicine, 26 Aug 21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2021.06.005
Kales S, Smith D. Firefighting and the Heart: Implications for Prevention. Circulation, 4 Apr 2017. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.027018
Kuehn B. Studies Detail Heart Risks for Firefighters. Circulation, 16 Aug 2021. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.121.056119
Smith D et al. The Relation of Emergency Duties to Cardiac Death Among US Firefighters. Am Journal Cardiology, 1 Mar 2019. 10.1016/j.amjcard.2018.11.049.Epub 2018 Dec 3.
Mediterranean diet for heart health. Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801