Acute stress caused by the 9/11 attacks increased the risk for hypertension, heart attack, and stroke, for years after the event, according to a recent study conducted by Alison Holma, F.N.P., Ph.D., of the University of California at Irvine. The study followed 2,729 adult participants for three years after the attacks in 2001. Participants that reported extreme stress reactions in the days immediately following the attacks were twice as likely to develop hypertension and three times as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke. The odds ratio for those reporting ongoing worry after the attacks was 4.67 compared to those that did not report ongoing worry.
The study has public health implications, specifically with regards to the way that governmental organizations and news agencies communicate risks of terrorist events. According to Dr. Holma, “The message from this research is that we need to be very clear about the way in which we communicate information about terror attacks to the public.” The following is an excerpt of an article from Medpage Today that reviews the study:
The impact of ongoing worry about terror attacks has public health implications “in terms of the way that we communicate risk of events like terror attacks,” she said.
Dr. Holman said that in the years since 9/11 there have been a number of times when Homeland Security has raised alert levels, but there has been no research to determine the effect these terror alerts have on the health of the general public. “The message from this research is that we need to be very clear about the way in which we communicate information about terror attacks to the public,” she said. Raising the alert level may, she said, have the unwanted side effect of increasing worry and anxiety.
“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 known existing cardiovascular disease,” she wrote.
Acute stress response was measured using a modified Stanford Acute Stress Reaction Questionnaire. Acute stress symptoms, Dr. Holman said, are similar to the symptoms of posttraumatic stress except in the case of acute stress symptoms occurring immediately.