The American Heart Association (AHA)
In the months after Hurricane Katrina, a group of young cardiologists in New Orleans had a hunch.
They seemed to be getting more heart attack patients in the emergency department at Tulane Medical Center than before the hurricane devastated the city in August 2005. Their initial study looking at the rate of heart attacks during the three years after the storm suggested they were right.
Now, a new study from some of those same doctors shows it wasn’t a temporary uptick. The rate of heart attack-related admissions has continued to climb at the New Orleans hospital over the past decade. Researchers assume the immediate stress of the situation led to more heart attacks soon after Katrina.
The study is one of several in recent years to look at how natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis, affect cardiovascular health.
At Tulane in the 10 years after Katrina, about 3 percent of admissions — or 2,341 — were because of heart attacks. In the two years prior, less than 1 percent — 150 patients — were admitted for heart attacks.
“We were surprised that this has persisted for 10 years,” said Anand M. Irimpen, M.D., senior author of the study and an associate professor of clinical medicine at Tulane Heart and Vascular Institute at Tulane University School of Medicine. “I hope it comes down.”
It’s possible doctors today are seeing the long-term effects of the economic and emotional hardships that followed the storm, said Irimpen, whose patients tell him their post-Katrina lives are tougher.
The findings were presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions in November.
Heart attack patients admitted after Katrina were more likely to have conditions linked to heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes — findings that didn’t surprise Irimpen.
“Most people, when they returned after the storm, their priority was rebuilding their homes and not their health,” said Irimpen, who had to live in Dallas for six months after Katrina while his home was repaired.
Research shows it’s not a unique scenario. In the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, researchers found a sharp increase in heart attack and stroke deaths in the month following the earthquake in a devastated area of the island country, according to a 2015 study.
U.S. researchers who studied the impact of Hurricane Sandy found heart attacks increased by 22 percent in the areas of New Jersey most impacted by the 2012 storm during the two weeks post-Sandy compared with the same period from the previous five years. Heart attack-related deaths also increased, as did the incidence of strokes.
Hurricane Sandy researcher John B. Kostis, M.D., rode out the storm at his home in Warren. He said it’s important to study how hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters affect the heart because it helps communities better prepare for weather-related events that may limit access to food, water, roads — and hospitals for emergencies such as heart attacks.
An important lesson from the presented findings is that even if one survives a catastrophe, “natural disasters affect individuals and communities for a long time,” said Kostis, associate dean for cardiovascular research at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and director of the school’s Cardiovascular Institute.
One of his patients knows that firsthand.
Paul Jeffrey had a heart attack two years before Hurricane Sandy. After the storm, he and his wife made a conscious effort to keep his stress level at a minimum during the months they made repairs to their home.
But nearly a year after the hurricane, the 63-year-old from Ortley Beach wasn’t doing well and needed an angioplasty to clear two blocked vessels. Jeffrey thinks he would have needed the procedure eventually, but believes it was accelerated by the stress from wrangling with federal and local officials in getting financial assistance for home repairs.
Even so, the retired pharmaceutical executive said he was lucky. His house was not seriously damaged and he could afford the repairs. Many of his neighbors lost their homes and didn’t have the money to rebuild.
“That kind of stress is … tremendously hard on the body in every way,” Jeffrey said. “Physically, emotionally, psychologically, cardiovascular health, everything.”