Study shows effects of stress on cortisol patterns in police

Intense stress can cause disruption of awakening cortisol patterns, making police officers more susceptible to cardiovascular disease.
By Amy Wallace   |   Feb. 6, 2017 at 11:20 AM
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Feb. 6 (UPI) -- A new study from the University at Buffalo has linked high stress and cortisol levels in police to an increased risk of heart disease.

Cortisol is a hormone that controls stress levels in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, or HPA Axis, in the body and typically increases upon waking. However, the study found that for police officers who experience intense stress on the job, cortisol functions differently and does not increase upon waking but holds steady.

The study examined 338 officers from the Buffalo Police Department who were in the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress, or BCOPS, long-term study of stress and health effects on police.

"We wanted to look at what stressors most affect police officers in their work and what effect that has in the dysregulation of this awakening cortisol pattern," John Violanti, Ph.D., research professor of epidemiology and environmental health in UB's School of Public Health and Health Professions and author of the study, said in a press release.

"Past studies haven't really looked at the intensity of the stressor and how it affected this cortisol pattern. Here we looked at the actual intensity."

Officers in the study filled out a questionnaire rating 60 police-related events by stress ratings. Results of the questionnaire showed that exposure to battered or dead children were the most stressful, followed by killing someone in the line of duty, having a fellow officer killed, use of force and being physically attacked.

The study found that police officers experience one of the five major stressors 2.4 times per month.

Researchers studied the cortisol patterns of police officers who experienced one of the top five stressors compared to cortisol patterns of officers who experienced the least stressors, and found that officers with lower stress had a steep and steady increase in waking cortisol levels while officers under high stress had a blunted cortisol response over time.

"If you experience chronic stress or high stress situations, the cortisol can no longer adjust normally like this," Vioilanti said. "So what happens with people under a lot of stress, the cortisol flattens out. For some people it goes down and others it goes up and stays up. That's called dysregulation of the HPA Axis."

Dysregulation of HPA Axis can lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes, a leading cause of death in police officers.

The study was published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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