Researchers at Tulane University Hospital found there was a threefold increase in the number of heart attacks in the New Orleans area even two years after Hurricane Katrina. Previous studies have shown that heart attack cases spike immediately following major disasters, but this is the first study of its kind to look at the longer-term effects of such disasters, according to study co-author Dr. Anand Irimpen.
"The major factor that we think is causing this problem is stress," said Dr. Irimpen. "Generally you would imagine that after a disaster, the stress level would come down pretty soon after … but living here in New Orleans, I can see that people are still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina."
Other cardiologists in New Orleans began noticing an increase in the number of heart patients almost immediately after the hurricane and flooding. Although the study isn't conclusive about causes of the increase in heart problems, it examined a post-Katrina group of patients that had a higher prevalence of unemployment and a lack of medical insurance, as well as smoking and substance abuse.
After Katrina, some hospitals closed and doctors left town, which may also have made it more difficult for sick patients to obtain health care. Health care experts also believe that many people's diets deteriorated because of a lack of access to grocery stores leading to higher cholesterol. Temporary housing conditions made it difficult for residents to cook at home, so more people ate out, Dr. Irimpen said.
Adele Blandford found herself facing a perfect storm of challenges that eventually led to a mild heart attack about two years ago. Like many in New Orleans, she lost her livelihood and home in one fell swoop during Katrina. She and her family, including her 85-year-old mother, were evacuated to Lafitte, La. They lived in a hotel room for seven months and, she says, fell into an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle.
"We ate out three times a day," said Blandford. "Without being able to move and exercise like we should have done, I gained weight."
A few months after she moved back to New Orleans, Blandford started feeling unwell. One day she couldn't breathe and felt a tightness in her shoulders. She later found out she'd suffered a mild heart attack.
She says it was the most stressful time of her life.
"The storm did not cause the over 90 percent blockage [in one of the arteries] because that was happening over time," Blandford said. "But the stress of the storm, the stress of not knowing what was going on while we were gone, the stress of losing our business and having no income…did bring it all to the forefront."
"Psychological stresses are major risk factors for cardiovascular diseases," says cardiologist Dr. Chip Lavie of Ochsner Hospital in New Orleans.
Dr. Lavie says that some of stresses that follow disasters such as Katrina are being experienced by many Americans in the economic downturn.
"The things that happened in Katrina with the psychological stress, that's probably happening across the country right now with the economic situation as people are losing their insurance or becoming unemployed," said Dr. Lavie.
His advice is exercise, exercise, exercise.
"One thing that most people could do is regular physical activity, regular exercise training," said Dr. Lavie. "That has may beneficial effects to improve cardiovascular health, but one of its mechanisms is improving psychological stress, and therefore improving stress-related cardiovascular events."