Stress sufferers take terrorism risk to heart
PEOPLE who suffered severe stress after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 suffered up to three times the normal rate of heart attacks two years later — just from watching the events on television. A study of nearly 3000 American citizens found rates of high blood pressure among those suffering acute stress also doubled in the two years after the attacks.
Overall, rates of cardiovascular problems — ranging from high blood pressure to strokes and heart attacks — among those who suffered acute stress rose by 53 per cent compared to the general population over the three years following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon.
The findings, published this week in the US journal Archives of General Psychiatry (2008;65(1):73-80), challenge previous assumptions that people had to have had direct exposure to terrorist attacks, and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, to suffer later physical health problems.
The findings were based on a representative national sample of 2729 US adults, 95 per cent of whom had completed an online health survey before the 2001 attacks.
Their acute stress responses were recorded between nine and 14 days after the 9/11 attacks, and follow-up surveys counted the number of diagnosed heart problems one, two and three years afterwards.
The increases in rates of heart problems were found even after adjusting the results to take account of prior cardiovascular ill-health, other risk factors including smoking and overweight, how close people were to the attacks, and other factors. The highest increase in risk was seen in people who reported ongoing worry about terrorism in the years after 9/11. The authors, from five leading US universities, said the findings further suggest The Weekend Health section has been expanded starting this week. Adam Taor’s column, Body Parts You’ve Never Heard Of, appears on Page 15. the importance of considering the potential public health impact of indirect exposure to extreme stress, because most of our respondents were exposed to the attacks only by watching television’’.
To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that acute psychological responses to 9/11 predicted increased incidence in reports of physician-diagnosed cardiovascular ailments for three years in adults, most of whom did not have pre-existing cardiac disease,’’ wrote the authors.
Moreover, ongoing worries about terrorism seemed to exacerbate the risk of physician-diagnosed heart problems two and three years later among individuals with high 9/11-related acute stress.’’
Gavin Lambert, head of the human neurotransmitters laboratory at Melbourne’s Baker Heart Research Institute, said the findings supported previous research that observed a similar increase in heart attacks in the weeks after 9/11 in both New York and Florida — suggesting direct contact with the attacks was not required to damage health.
However, Lambert said it was unlikely the findings could be extrapolated to people who watched TV reports of the Bali terrorist attacks of October 2002, saying the two events were like chalk and cheese’’ as Bali received much less coverage. The effect noticed in the US study, where acute stress became longterm due to ongoing warnings and fears about repeated terrorist attacks, also probably would not apply to Australia, where terror threats have been less immediate, Lambert said.