9/11 attacks stoked U.S. heart ailments

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had a heartfelt impact on certain U.S. residents. Those who experienced serious stress-related reactions in the weeks after 9/11 developed more heart and blood vessel ailments than their less-stressed counterparts did, reports a team led by nursing researcher E. Alison Holman of the University of California, Irvine.

A nationally representative sample of 2,592 adults completed a health survey during the summer of 2001 and again within 3 weeks after 9/11. Follow-up surveys assessed physician-diagnosed medical ailments, including heart problems, strokes, and high blood pressure.

Roughly 1 in 5 participants cited severe stress symptoms just after 9/11, including constant rumination about the events, emotional detachment, and loss of concentration. Compared with the majority of study participants, these superstressed individuals—most of whom saw the attacks on television—displayed a 53 percent increase in new cases of heart and blood vessel disorders over the next 3 years, Holman and her colleagues report in the January Archives of General Psychiatry.

Volunteers who reported marked stress reactions after 9/11 and continued to worry about terrorism—about 6 percent of the sample—developed new cardiac problems three times as often as the others did.

The researchers controlled for participants’ prior heart and mental-health problems, as well as for health-risk factors such as cigarette smoking, obesity, and high cholesterol.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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