The Hurricane Katrina aftermath has been a difficult enough time for survivors, but a new study shows that New Orleans residents face a three-fold increased risk of heart attack six years later.
Since the storm hit in 2005, the higher risk for heart disease has persisted even though many patients in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath are more likely to be prescribed heart attack prevention medications.
The new data, presented at the American College of Cardiology's 62nd Annual Scientific Session, is an update to previous studies that compared the behavioral and heart health of New Orleans residents before and after the storm.
The study examined 150 heart attack patients who were treated at Tulane Medical Center in the two years before the storm, and 1,177 heart attack patients in the six-year Hurricane Katrina aftermath.
Researchers compared the two groups based on demographic and clinical data, which included lab test results, health insurance status, medical non-adherence, employment, and drug use, and investigated differences in the incidence of heart attacks.
Compared to the to the pre-Katrina group, they found that New Orleans residents who had heart attacks in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath were less likely to be taking their prescribed heart disease medications, and more likely to smoke, drink heavily, and have high levels of stress and mental illness.
"Overwhelmingly, the main differences in the pre- and post-Katrina populations involve psychosocial risk factors as opposed to shifts in traditional cardiovascular risk factors like hypertension, obesity and diabetes," said Dr. Anand Irimpen, the study's senior investigator at the Tulane University School of Medicine, in a statement.
The findings show a strong association between pervasive chronic stress and heart disease.
Dr. Irimpen believes that this association highlights the need for doctors to keep track of their patients' anxiety levels in the aftermath of a traumatic event like Hurricane Katrina.
He cited existing studies showing that stress reduction and cognitive behavioral therapy can make a big difference in reducing heart attack risk.
The study also indicated many complicated factors related to the socioeconomic and demographic shifts in New Orleans in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.
The post-Katrina group was much more likely to be unemployed and uninsured, making it more difficult for them to receive effective treatment.
"Large-scale catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina seem to create a very large shift in the population and the way it behaves and takes care of itself," said Dr. Irimpen.
"The massive devastation of Hurricane Katrina has broken the infrastructure of New Orleans, and its effects are much more far-reaching than we expected."
The research team finds broad implications of this data on the health effects that natural disasters have on communities.
Even though the Gulf Coast has been significantly rebuilt in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, enough infrastructure is still missing that it has an ongoing effect on heart health.
They recommend that officials in New Orleans in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, as well as those in other areas hit by natural disasters, should integrate psychological and cardiovascular health strategies into their disaster planning.
Eventually, the team hopes to collaborate and compare data with other sites hit by natural disasters, like New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They hope to create a risk prediction tool that can better serve patients who are at risk for heart attacks after disasters.