IFD to help study firefighters’ heart health

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The city of Indianapolis announced Wednesday that some of the city’s firefighters will soon help save lives in a different way.

About 400 firefighters and doctors from Harvard and IU Health are teaming up to study the health of firefighters. The goal is to figure out why cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for firefighters on duty.

“The United States Fire Administration reports that nearly half of the firefighter deaths that happen every year are a result of heart attacks,” IFD Chief Brian Sanford said.

The average age of firefighters dying from on-duty heart attack is 50 years old. Some studies have shown many firefighters suffer from various types of cardiac enlargement.

Doctors said to better understand the hearts of firefighters, they will take 3D images of the hearts of the hundreds of IFD volunteers. Through MRI’s and ultrasounds, the volunteers will have their hearts screened throughout the year.

IU Health is doing the screenings with the approval of the city, the department of public safety and the local and state firefighters unions.

“The firefighters are based on presence or absence of certain risk factors and then selected at random to make sure it’s statistically sound,” Dr. Stefanos Kales of the Harvard School of Public Health, who leads the study, said.

By studying the hearts of the IFD volunteers, the experts are hoping to uncover whether it’s the stress of the job, the long term exposure to toxins, unusual sleep patterns or a combination, that are leading to so many firefighter deaths.

“I think our responsibility to our firefighters is not just today to their safety. But long-term, so someday they can enjoy a healthy and safe retirement,” Troy Riggs, Director of Public Safety, said.

Studying IFD volunteers could help detect subtle changes in the heart as they happen.

“We want to find these changes while they are reversible and treatable. And we can keep people active. We don’t want to find them when it’s too late,” says Dr. Kale.

Eventually, finding what harms firefighters’ hearts could lead to treatments not just for them, but for all of us.

After the Indianapolis study is over, a second study will be done on firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri to validate the findings here in Indy.

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