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University Receives $1M Grant for Firefighter Heart Disease Study

Press Release | University of Arizona

June 18, 2010

Firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs, but half of those who die while working actually do so from a heart attack.

A $1 million, three-year grant to the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health will fund research to determine whether medical treatment can help prevent the progression of early atherosclerotic disease in firefighters.

Most firefighters who die of heart attacks have underlying heart disease, but in many cases the disease is not discovered early. Standard medical tests for firefighters do not detect early heart disease.

This study will determine if statin drugs are effective in preventing increases in artery-lining thickness over time in firefighters who do not have high levels of total cholesterol.

“If medical treatment can help prevent the progression of early atherosclerotic disease in these firefighters, then we should offer statin treatment to firefighters with cholesterol levels below the current standard,” said Dr. Jeff Burgess, a UA public health professor and the principal investigator on the study.

Burgess will work in partnership with the Phoenix Fire Department Health Center, Dr. Matthew Allison of the University of California, San Diego, and other researchers. The grant is through the Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters Grants program.

In preliminary analyses from a previous FEMA-sponsored study, Burgess found that, similar to the general population, cholesterol level in figherfighters was a strong risk factor for increased thickness of the lining of the carotid arteries in the neck, which is a measure of the extent of atherosclerosis, the progressive narrowing and hardening of the arteries from fat deposits over time.

These risks continued even at levels of total cholesterol below that at which medical treatment is currently recommended. The increased thickness of the inner lining of the carotid arteries, also known as intima-media thickness or IMT, has been shown to be strongly associated with arterial disease in the heart.

This research is the latest in a series of firefighter health and safety projects under way or recently completed by faculty members at the Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Other projects include: Identifying risk factors for heart disease in firefighters; an international study comparing line-of-duty injury rates in firefighters and best practices used to reduce these injuries; a risk-management intervention to reduce injuries in Tucson firefighters; a study of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in fire stations; testing of respirator cartridges to reduce smoke exposure; and determining the health of firefighter retirees.