Surprise study finds that U.S. Army soldiers have worse heart health than civilians

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Tristan Biese
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Tristan Biese

When most people think about the men and women who serve in our armed forces, they think of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard personnel who are physically fit and mentally sound.

In many respects that’s a misperception — at least for one branch of service, the Army, however — and a new study released recently by the American Heart Association proves the point.

According to the AMA, active duty Army troops on average have poorer heart health than the average American citizens they are serving to protect.

The study, the first of its kind comparing heart and cardiovascular fitness between Army troops and civilians using standards established by the AHA, found that the latter, overall, had better heart health than soldiers across all age groups. 

What’s more, the sample group wasn’t small by any means: Researchers’ results were gleaned from a data sample of 263,430 active duty soldiers ages 17-64 alongside a similar-sized group American civilians who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 2011-2012.

So granted, the data is dated, for sure, but the results weren’t at all what most researchers expected — or the general public.

“We had expected that the percentage of ideal weight in the Army group would have been much higher because of the fitness standards to get into the Army and the physical aspects of the job,” study author Loryana L. Vie said in a statement

Vie, who is senior project director of a long-term collaborative relationship between the U.S. Army and the University of Pennsylvania, added: “It is notable that we didn’t see the advantage we expected in the Army group, and it’s clear that both groups have a lot of room for improvement.”

Researchers divided the sample populations into four age groups, and when they did, they discovered that, in general, civilians possessed more ideal cardiovascular health — though even those numbers were low and far below what the AHA would have liked to have seen.

According to the study, the youngest age group — 17-29 — showed that only 16 percent of civilians had ideal cardiovascular health, which isn’t good at all, but it compared with just 10 percent of Army soldiers.

“Ideal weight and blood pressure metrics were strikingly low in both active duty personnel and civilians,” Vie said. “We found only one-third of the Army and civilian groups had an ideal weight.”

Some additional findings include:

— Roughly 20 percent of those in both groups currently smoked tobacco, though overall, Army personnel met ideal guidelines regarding smoking and diabetes (because, generally speaking, you can’t enlist if you’re diabetic);

— Less than one-third of troops, or 30 percent, had ideal blood pressure measurements compared with 55 percent of civilians — odd, given the military most often excludes potential recruits with high blood pressure.

“It was surprising to find that Army personnel were less likely to have ideal cardiovascular health – especially due to higher blood pressure – compared to civilians of similar ages. Because recruits are screened to exclude high blood pressure and maintaining physical fitness is a major focus for the Army, we expected lower, not higher, blood pressure in the Army,” said senior author Dr. Darwin R. Labarthe, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Like the civilian population, Army personnel suffer most from cardiovascular disease than any other. In 2014, a study found that about 1 in 10 Army troops (9.4 percent) were afflicted with cardiovascular disease, up from 6.8 percent recorded only seven years earlier.

The Army recently introduced a new physical fitness test (APFT) that features six events and still includes a two-mile run. The service did this, in part, to increase overall soldier readiness as the demands on troops increase and battlefield requirements demand it.

J. D. Dougherty, a former paramedic, firefighter, and 15-year military veteran of OEF, is co-founder of Survival Legion, a vet-owned company that stresses functional fitness and draws it’s uniqueness from the Roman Legions.

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