Sunday, April 4, 2010

Why Cops Get Fat and Die Young.

That's an eye grabber, eh? I would have called this week's entry something like, "Stress physiology 101 for cops," but I've been told my blog name is boring and that I should spice things up a bit. There you go.

This little corner of the internet is guided by science and what is sometimes called, "the scientific method of inquiry." That's my bias. Science isn't perfect. It is, by definition, progressive in nature. Scientists used to tell us the earth was flat and that prefrontal lobotomy's cured depression. Now we know these are false. We've progressed, and will continue to do so. But I'm still more inclined to believe truth claims when they are based in scientific research, rather than faith, intuition or tarot cards. With science as our guide I ask,

Do police officers have a shorter life-expectancy than the general population?

Answer: Yes. According to recent research by John Violanti and his colleagues at the University of Buffalo, the average life expectancy for officers is 66 years, compared to 75 year for the general population. Moreover, the quality of our lives is poorer, due to an alphabet soup of diseases and disorders that we disproportionately acquire through a police career.

Many young officers don't really care about this fact. It's cool being a cop. It's exciting, interesting, challenging and a good way to get dates. Let's not let the fact that a police career may very well shave a full nine full years off our lives kill the buzz of Code-3 cover calls and choir practices. Right? Let me, with love in my heart, invite you to look a little further out in time. Most cops are scrupulous financial planners. We set money aside, invest in real estate and carefully consider our retirement. We NEED…repeat NEED to consider our personal wellness in a similar fashion. Otherwise, we're going to live significantly shorter, more unhealthy lives. We'll become caricatures instead of real people. Those jaded, grizzled, hard drinking cops are fun to watch on t.v. I can pretty much guarantee you wouldn't want to BE that cop in real life. You're kids and spouses definitely don't want that.

Why do cops get fat and die young?

Answer: cortisol. It's at least one reason.

Okay, so we have a bunch of different kinds of steroid hormones (called "glucocorticoids") running around our bodies. Their job is to get the body ready to whoop someone up. For our purpose, the most important glucocorticoid is cortisol (aka "the stress hormone"). Since police officers are always on guard at work (think, Cooper Color Code here), our bodies produce way more cortisol than it should. In the animal kingdom, the further up the food chain you go, the more crazy cortisol levels play havoc. Animals slightly lower in the food chain produce cortisol and other stress hormones (i.e.. adrenaline) only when they need them for immediate battle, like when chasing or running from predators. After the chase, they just go back doing whatever they were doing, and their cortisol goes back to normal. Humans are unique in that we can actually produce cortisol by our thoughts. The only way to really freak a zebra out is to be bigger than it and start chasing it across the savanna like you want to eat the bastard. Zebras don't get freaked out by their thoughts. They don't fret about second mortgages while grazing. The absolute guru in this area, and a hero of mine, is Robert Sapolski from Stanford University. He has two things I like a lot. First, he's an internationally recognized expert and researcher in stress physiology. Second, he talks about his work in such a way that any bozo (like me) can actually UNDERSTAND. His book on this topic is called, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. I would recommend it highly. I've attached a video of Sapolsky talking about the zebra thing.

Here's the problem with cortisol. Elevated levels cause a whole bunch of medical and psychological problems, such as hypertension, depression, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Those are just the headliners. There are many more diseases/disorders associated with whacky cortisol levels. If your body produces more cortisol than it needs it gets stuck with it. After mashing Code-3 to a hot call for sixty seconds, the officer goes Code-4 and you're not even on scene yet. Your body then says, "SHIT, I have all this cortisol that WAS going to be used for this good brawl…now what I'm I going to do with it?" Apparently, (and this is a real bummer) what god has instructed our bodies to do is store extra cortisol in our bodies as fat. That's right, body fat. That's one reason so many of us have huge spare tires and big asses.

Importantly, we cannot consciously choose how much cortisol is secreted during stress. It's one of the many ("autonomic") bodily functions not under our direct control. I say "direct" here because there are a few autonomic functions we DO have control over. If memory serves eye blinking is one, but that's not gonna help us. Another is BREATHING.

You guys need to start breathing more. In my book, I talk a lot about breathing. I'm tempted here to just cut and paste the stuff but then you won't go out and buy it when it comes out, so let me paraphrase my wise self. Breathing - specifically diaphragmatic (aka "tactical" "combat") breathing recalibrates the body. It produces a conscious feeling of calm. Breathing is free. It can be used anytime, anywhere. As counterintuitive as it may seem, as soon as you hear a hot call come over the radio, you should start tactical breathing. Not only will this allow you to retain access of higher cognitive functioning (which is really helpful when you're making snap, life or death decisions), it will keep your body in check. So, not as much cortisol will dump. I'm not going to go into more detail about tactical breathing here this morning. If you don't know how to breath diaphrematically, just do an internet search. I may dedicate a post entirely to breathing because it's THAT freakin' important. Breathing is a tool and it's a damn good one for combatting cortisol and all the negative ju ju that excessive cortisol does to us.

As soon as you're done reading this take four diaphragmatic breaths. In for a four count, hold for four, release for a four count. Do that four times and carry on with your day. If you don't…well then you've been led to the water and you're simply refusing to drink.

It seems the audio may not be working here. If you can't hear it, just go to the youtube video,


  1. Fascinating--both your explanation and the video. Our human evolution and then, on top of it, our police careers, have put us in one hell of a corner. The "tactical breathing" makes sense, whether in a felony stop or with a rude cashier, makes sense, but it's quickly forgotten in the rush of things--is it as effective if one employs it AFTER the situation?

    Great piece of writing and advice, Jeff!


  2. Thanks Andy. Glad you liked it. Yeah, breathing before, during, after. I've found it helpful to take some diaphrematic breaths just after I sit down on the witness stand in courtt, right before they ask me my name and all that business. I find it helps me think and speak more clearly and calmly.