To the list of unwelcome and long-lingering Hurricane Katrina legacies, researchers from Tulane University School of Medicine have added another that hits particularly close to home: heart attacks.

Tulane medical researchers have documented a threefold increase in the number of people suffering heart attacks in the metro area in the years after Katrina compared to the years immediately before the disaster. The research pins the blame squarely on chronic stress following the disaster.

“The results were astounding, the rise in heart attacks continued not just in that first period [after the disaster] but in the years since,” says lead researcher Dr. Anand Irimpen, associate professor of clinical medicine at Tulane’s Heart and Vascular Institute.

Previous studies have focused on jumps in heart attack rates in the immediate hours or weeks after disasters like earthquakes or volcano eruptions, but Tulane’s work is among the first to look at the long-term public health impact from such major events. Irimpen says this reflects the extraordinarily broad scope and lasting difficulties caused by the disaster.

“People had to go through such a long ordeal,” he says. “Even if they were not affected directly by the hurricane, living with it all around you had a subliminal effect. They interact with people impacted, their families and their coworkers and everyone else. There is a stress level in general here that is much higher than before, and stress has a direct impact on heart attacks.”

The study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, and Irimpen presented its findings at that medical group’s annual meeting this spring.

“Now we have the data so we can act on it in the future. This shows how governments can use their resources for better health in the recovery. It’s not just about housing, but about healthcare, not just about getting grocery stores open but pharmacies too,” says Irimpen. 

The findings are also a warning to individuals about the importance of minding their health even when a disaster upends other areas of their lives. Among the surge of heart patients fueling the post-Katrina increase, Irimpen says, many hadn’t kept up with their medications and many had begun smoking or abusing drugs. Many were also unemployed and lacked health insurance.

“People have been busy rebuilding their homes, but not their health,” he says.