The relationship between neurological conditions, substance disorders & high-stress emergency work

The burden of brain disorders cost the Australian economy more than heart disease, cancer, and respiratory disease… combined. Substance abuse disorders have the highest growth rate between 2010 – 2017 (24.7%), followed by neurological disorders (15.6%) and mental disorders (8.6%).[1]

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are the leading neurological disorders, followed by Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. Neuropathy is a nerve disorder that also falls into this category (caused by the result of systematic diseases, like diabetes). Alcohol, drug use and tobacco are major triggers for these conditions – and in people over 65, substance abuse impacts one in five.[2]

Daily psychological stressors in front-line work lead to long-term effects

There’s a strong connection between the stress of being a first responder and psychological outcomes. From neurological disorders associated with malnutrition to traumatic brain injuries, emergency workers are a high-risk group.

Let’s take Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Age, poor sleep patterns, past head trauma, lifestyle and heart health all play a role in the likelihood of getting this condition. A lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, and type-2 diabetes are major risk factors – all of which are issues that shift-working, chronically-stressed first responders have to battle.

In one study, police officers experiencing the highest level of stress were four to six times more likely to have poor sleep. Suicide rates were eight times higher, and the risk of brain cancer rose greatly after 30 years (or more) of police service.[3]

Emergency staff stand in the firing line. From high-speed car chases to handling people who need to be restrained, there might be drugs and alcohol involved, making it more difficult to calm the person. This can lead to head trauma and injuries – which can cause conditions like epilepsy.

Is PTSD a brain disease?

We know that one in five police officers suffer from PTSD.[4] And recent studies are shedding light into this psychological adjustment disorder, proving that PTSD is linked to dementia. And the problem with PTSD is that it’s lifelong.

John Marx, ex officer and author of Amor Your Self, talks about “emptying your buckets” and letting go of that trauma, as it comes up. There are plenty of ways to do this, such as seeing a psychologist or counsellor, journaling, meditation, and relying on a support system.

Substances like drugs and alcohol aren’t coping mechanisms, and only exacerbate mental health problems and future neurological complications. Emergency Services Health exists to support first responders maintain good health through the life of their career. 

Your brain is your number one weapon. Let us help you protect it.

Cover like no other

We understand the demands of front line work more than any other insurer. After all, we've been looking after the health and wellbeing of the police community for more than 85 years. Whether you're already a member or interested in becoming one, call us to find out how to get the most out of our cover and benefits. We're here to help. 

Please note: some articles on this website are compiled from material obtained externally. Although we make every effort to ensure information is correct at the time of publication, we accept no responsibility for its accuracy. Health-related articles are intended for general information only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please consult your doctor. The views expressed in articles are not necessarily those of Emergency Services Health.