In a new study, police officers are at increased risk for many physical and mental diseases. Researchers compared police officers' health risks with that of other people and found that police officers are at increased risk for obesity, metabolic syndrome and suicide.

"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," said John Violanti, PhD, professor of social and preventive medicine in the University of Buffalo's School of Public Health and Health Professions, and lead researcher.

Previous research has shown that police officers are at an increased risk for atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries) when compared to other people.

The study included nearly 500 police officers. The researchers found that nearly 40 percent of police officers were obese compared to 32 percent in general population and 25 percent suffered from metabolic syndrome. Officers were at an increased risk for stress and cancer while working officers' risk for suicide was eight times higher than retired police officers.

Police officers are known to be at a higher risk for metabolic syndrome and the research says that night shifts and shorter sleep duration might be a reason.

"We found that as a group, officers who work nights have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome than those who work day shifts," says Violanti.

Earlier research says that longer dayshift work hours and depression are a risk factor for increasing suicide ideation (thinking or planning to commit suicide) in female police officers while male police officers risk of suicide ideation went up due to trauma related stress or increasing afternoon shifts. 

"This finding challenges the common assumption that separated or retired officers are at increased risk for suicide," said Violanti.

Socio-economic status is also considered to be a strong predictor for stress in police officers.

"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," said Violanti.

Police officers don't reveal their health problems because it causes them more stress as well as professional setback.

"The police culture doesn't look favorably on people who have problems. Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you're an officer, but you fear asking for help," he said.

"If you have heart disease, you may not be allowed to go back on the street. 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," he said.

Researchers say that early intervention programs may bring down some of the health risks associated with stress related to police work.

"Police recruits need to receive inoculation training against stress. If I tell you that the first time you see a body or an abused child that it is normal to have feelings of stress, you will be better able to deal with them; exposure to this type of training inoculates you so that when it does happen, you will be better prepared. At the same time, middle and upper management in police departments need to be trained in how to accept officers who ask for help and how to make sure that officers are not afraid to ask for that help," said Violanti.

The study was published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health.