Study tracks post-Katrina heart attacks

By Karen Abernathy - bio | email

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WLOX) - It has been nearly four years since Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast. And as many people continue their efforts to recover, the stress of the disaster may be causing health problems they're not aware of. Now, a new study out of Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, has some startling numbers about the storm's damaging effects on our heart.

Gerard Guilliot is part of that study. Like so many people, Guilliot spent countless hours gutting and rebuilding his flooded home after Katrina. He said it was a monumental task, that apparently put plenty of stress on his heart.

"I thought I was fine until the last couple of heart attacks," Guilliot said.

Lawrence Tompson had a heart attack just a few days ago. He, too, believes Katrina was a factor.

"Well, that could be, you know, because we had a lotta problems," Tompson said.

Tulane cardiologist Anand Irimpen said Gerard and Lawrence are part of a continuing trend. Doctor Irimpen's research found that in the two years after Katrina, heart attacks in New Orleans increased three-fold compared to pre-Katrina.

"We find that the patients post-Katrina had an increased incidence of smoking, non-compliance with medications, unemployment," Dr. Irimpen said.

Researchers say, over time, natural disasters disrupt living arrangements, finances, marriages. And those changes rank high on the scale of life's most stressful events. Some experts predict the current financial crisis will have the same effect.

Dr. Charles Figley is a Professor of Disaster Mental Health at Tulane University.

"As a consequence of the financial crisis, we're going to have more of these kinds of problems in terms of myocardial infarcts, sleeping disorders, anxiety, substance abuse," Dr. Figley said.

He said it serves as a sobering reminder that a disaster can be as damaging to our health as it is to our home.

Dr. Irimpen said his research on Katrina victims could be the first to show that traumatic events can have long-term health effects. Now in its third year, the Tulane study is continuing to follow the trends to see when, or if, the number of post-Katrina heart attacks will start going down.

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