Deer Hunting: Not Just Dangerous for the Deer

"Better to hunt in fields for health unbought than fee the doctor for a nauseous draught. The wise for cure on exercise depend."
-John Dryden

I have never been on a deer hunt but I care for a lot of patients who are avid hunters. Missouri, as you may or may not know, is blessed with a plentiful deer population, and my folks take advantage of this every fall. This may be just a weird coincidence, but I often wonder how some of my patients resurrect the stamina needed to stalk, shoot and field dress a buck while living with cancer. Of course they have help from their fellow hunters, but just how strenuous is it to spend the whole day (a day that starts mighty early, too) hunting deer?

It turns out I'm not the only doctor who wondered:

"Deer hunting may put men's hearts at risk"

In a study of 25 middle-aged male deer hunters, researchers found that the activities inherent to hunting -- like walking over rough terrain, shooting an animal and dragging its carcass -- sent the men's heart rates up significantly.

In some cases, this led to potentially dangerous heart-rhythm disturbances, or diminished oxygen supply to the heart.

In another ho-hum disclosure the study authors stated that 17 of the 25 hunters either already had coronary artery disease or risks factors for the disease such as cigarette smoking, obesity, hypertension or hyperlipidemia. This is certainly no shock to me. I personally see many hunters who have committed to the standard modern lifestyle afflicting a majority of Americans these days (see heart disease risk factors, above). In other words, it wouldn't surprise me one bit that an overweight hypertense smoker might show signs of cardiac ischemia while hauling a 20 point buck through the snow.

What is surprising is that some of the ischemic changes and threatening arrhythmias detected on heart monitors during the hunt were not seen during treadmill testing:

For the study, the researchers outfitted each man with a portable monitor that continuously recorded his heart's electrical activity during a day of deer hunting. For comparison, the men also had their hearts monitored as they exercised on a treadmill on a separate day.

In general, the researchers found, deer hunting put the men's hearts under more strain than the treadmill did. Ten men exceeded the maximum heart rate they logged on the treadmill, and several showed potentially dangerous heart responses to hunting that they did not show during the treadmill test.

Perhaps this is the woodlands equivalent to having a heart attack while shoveling snow, which if comparable would put a strain on the heart that cannot be replicated during a standard treadmill. Of course, during a treadmill test the subject is allowed to stop the test at any time just by announcing that he is fatigued.

One doesn't get off so easily when the driveway is only half-cleared and someone is waiting to drive to the grocery store.

Once again, thanks to researchers at William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Michigan, we have more evidence that the modern-day human heart rots without proper care and attention. Their conclusion says it succinctly:

In conclusion, deer hunting can evoke sustained HRs, ischemic ST-segment depression, and threatening ventricular arrhythmias in excess of those documented during maximal treadmill testing. The strenuous nature of deer hunting coupled with presumed hyperadrenergia and superimposed environmental stresses may contribute to the excessive cardiac demands associated with this activity.

When will we learn that exercise and healthy habits are the best ways to get out of the rut of disease and back into the hunt for a long life?

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The upside for your patient/hunters is that to a man, if you would ask them, they'd rather die hunting than from whatever disease you are treating.

Hmmm, I didn't realize you were a fellow-Missourian. My husband has had quadruple bypass, and we walk the hills of our pasture for a half-hour every day... pretty darned steep hills... but he doesn't hunt.

A dear friend of mine had a massive heart attack just two blocks from a hospital. As it turned out in the end (which came three months later) he and his family would have been much better off had he been far from help when the attack occurred.

Odds are good most of these men have seen, and make their choice.

As an annual deer hunter, I can say that it can be quite strenuous (I once tracked a deer wounded by a crossbow for at least three miles, probably closer to 5 through very difficult terrain to put it mildly). But the 'rush of the kill' from when a deer steps into sight until you come up to the carcass can be very intense. Always gets my heart beating.

Perhaps this is what you're getting at, but isn't the problem that many hunters are only active 3 days a year (while hunting) and otherwise are couch potatos? It's like anything, a guy who is relatively active will have an easier time hunting than a guy who only gets off his butt a few times a year.