Research that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s Annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA, reveals that firefighters who died due to vascular events, such as heart attack or stroke, were mostly engaging in vigorous physical activity just before the attack.

The investigators, led by Dr. Amna Zarar of Zeenat Qureshi Stroke Institute in Minnesota, suggest employers need to be aware of these risks.

“Knowing that these fatal heart attacks and other vascular events occur relatively frequently, fire departments and other workplaces need to be prepared to recognize these events and screen for those who may be at higher risk,” says Dr. Zarar.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stroke kills almost 130,000 Americans each year, and one American dies from stroke every 4 minutes. Meanwhile, about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack each year.

To determine the effect of physical activity on cardiovascular events, the researchers assembled data on deaths of on-duty firefighters from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that the CDC received between 1998 and 2012.

The activity level of the firefighters before a cardiovascular event was rated in the data as either “light to moderate” or “vigorous,” the researchers say.

After analyzing the data, the team found that while firefighters were on duty, there were a total of 199 fatal cardiovascular events that took place – 167 were heart attacks, 12 were from irregular heartbeat, three were from stroke and the rest were due to other cardiovascular problems.

The team found that 74% (148) of the events followed vigorous activity that lasted an average of 33 minutes.

The firefighters who died were an average age of 49 years old and had served as firefighters for an average of 22 years. The analysis states that CPR was performed for 178 of the firefighters, while an external defibrillator was used for 151.

Around 35% of the cardiovascular events occurred at the fire station and were triggered by fitness training or lifting heavy equipment, and 44% happened while the firefighters were actively fighting a fire.

Dr. Zarar suggests that screening individuals at high risk of a heart attack or other cardiovascular event should also include stress electrocardiogram tests and tests looking at high cholesterol and blood sugar.

A significant number of the firefighters who were undertaking vigorous physical activity at the time of the event had high blood pressure, smoked, had diabetes or had family members with heart disease.

Dr. Zarar says:

People also need more awareness of the symptoms and signs that can precede or occur with a heart attack or stroke, along with better screening for risk factors with regular health check-ups.”

The American Academy of Neurology has an information page on stroke, outlining the signs, treatment and prognosis, as well as a list of stroke-related studies that are currently seeking patients.

Medical News Today recently reported on new smartphone apps that can improve stroke care.