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9/11 Attacks Linked to Higher Rates of Heart Disease

Jan 8, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Americans who said they became anxious and stressed after the September 11th terrorist attacks—some from merely watching the collapse of New York’s Twin Towers on television—reported higher rates of heart disease up to three years later, researchers said.  While several studies found high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety in first responders or attack survivors, most of the nearly 2,000 people randomly selected nationwide for the study had no direct connection to September 11th.  Research revealed that before September 11th, about 22 percent of the participants reported they had heart ailments; three years after the attacks, about 31 percent said they had developed heart problems.  Those who said they were acutely stressed by the attacks were more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure one year after the attacks and more than three times as likely to have heart problems two years later, according to the study reported in January's issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event.  Strong emotions caused by the event create changes in the brain that may result in PTSD.  While most people who experience trauma have some symptoms early on, only some will develop PTSD.

The findings document the physical consequences of stress, especially from watching upsetting events on television, said lead researcher Alison Holman of the University of California-Irvine.  About two-thirds of the participants watched the September 11th attacks on live television.  "Seeing something as stressful as that on television is a very important thing to consider," Holman said. "You don't necessarily have to be in the (World Trade Center) Towers or in the Pentagon to be at risk for other problems."  The study reported increased heart disease rates even after taking into account other factors that could cause similar ailments, such as smoking and diabetes.

Steven Woloshin, a physician at the VA Medical Center in Vermont, said the findings were problematic given that those who report their own medical problems may exaggerate them, adding that participants are more likely to develop heart problems as they age.  "I don't think they've proven anything," he said. "There are millions of things that cause heart problems."

Holman and her colleagues used online surveys for their research; participants were not examined or interviewed beyond the surveys.  Most had completed a health survey before the September 11th attacks.  Researchers asked participants whether they experienced anxiety, had flashbacks or worried about terrorism after the September 11th attacks.  During follow-up surveys for three years after the attacks, participants were asked whether doctors had diagnosed them—for either the first time or with worsening cases—of high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, and other heart problems.

Psychologist Tom Demaria, who directs a center for bereaved September 11th families at South Nassau Communities Hospital on Long Island, said he helped to counsel a group of about 20,000 people, most of whom didn't live in New York City, in the months following the attacks.  Those interviewed frequently spoke of panic attacks with increased heart rates and tightness in their chests, he said.

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