By Bill Hendrick

A landmark St. Joseph’s Hospital study has found that even though firefighters are in better physical shape than people the same age in tamer occupations, they are up to 300 percent more likely to develop heart disease.

That means firefighters and other first responders are much more likely to suffer heart attacks or die from sudden cardiac arrest than most people, said Dr. H. Robert Superko of St. Joseph’s, part of the “Pill Hill” area of Sandy Springs at the intersection of Johnson Ferry and Peachtree-Dunwoody roads, just west of Brookhaven.

The study is the latest example of St. Joseph’s and Sandy Springs standing at the cutting edge of improvements in heart health. The hospital and the city’s Emergency Medical Service are cooperating in a new program to treat cardiac arrest patients with an intravenous saline solution chilled below 40 degrees to boost the survival rate. The American Heart Association named Sandy Springs a Heart Ready City on March 3 in recognition of that “cold IV” initiative, as well as the city’s training of more than 1,000 people a year in CPR and its placement of automated external defibrillators in all city vehicles.

Superko is the principal investigator of the federally funded St. Joseph’s firefighter study and will present his findings in November at a meeting of the American Heart Association.

He and a team of doctors and other health professionals at St. Joseph’s tested 300 firefighters from Gwinnett County for signs of heart trouble. The firefighters underwent sophisticated blood tests and CT scans to detect plaque buildup in and around the heart.

Thirty percent were found to be in at least the early stages of heart disease, which was very high for people in their age group, Superko told Reporter Newspapers. He also said their heart disease was unrelated to traditional risk factors, such as high cholesterol.

The firefighters’ average age was 50.

“Those results are astounding and point at job duties and environment as the primary determinants for early death in our country’s first responders,” Superko said.

Gwinnett Fire Chief Steve Rolader volunteered his men for the study after one of his firefighters died from sudden cardiac arrest while fighting a house fire.

“This wasn’t the first firefighter in my department to die, but I wanted to do something to make it among the last,” Rolader said. “This man was 53 years old, in great physical shape, and he had no symptoms of heart disease. We also had lost several newly retired firefighters to sudden cardiac death. There had to be a way to stop it.”

Volunteers underwent genetic screening, blood testing and imaging analysis, as well as diet and exercise review, during the yearlong study.

Superko said St. Joseph’s is offering $99 screenings involving a battery of tests to first responders around metro Atlanta. Normally, such screenings would cost up to $500.

“Stress plays a role,” he said. “And when they fight fires, they are exposed to a fair number of burning chemicals. It’s phenomenally stressful.”

It’s even stressful when firefighters are sent to scenes of emergencies that turn out to be false alarms, he said, because not knowing what to expect heightens stress levels.

“They have to make fast decisions,” Superko said. “We know it’s not cholesterol. Something else is going on. Very few of them smoke cigarettes. We measured everything we could think of in the guys, who were fairly young. … Several were found to have problems severe enough to send them to the operating room for emergency treatment.

“The beauty is, we can now intervene early when we find problems. We want to come up with an algorithm (set of rules) that might identify high-risk firefighters and apply that to every single firefighter in the country.”

The study is the latest bad news for firefighters. Research at the University of Kansas this year found that 22 percent of 77 studied firefighters had the blood vessels of 52-year-olds despite averaging 39 years of age.

“The beauty of tests available now is that we can intervene earlier,” Superko said. “The tests can save lives.”