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Heart and psyche: helpers from the eleventh of September still show late effects


The suffering of the helpers - mental problems, heart attacks, strokes

Around 3,000 lives were killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The rescue operations and the cleanup were supported by 90,000 volunteers. As a current American study reports on the late consequences of the attack, the survivors and helpers are still characterized by these traumatic experiences to this day. In particular, the mental and physical health of the helpers still bears clear traces of the disaster.

According to the study, the helpers show a significantly increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and heart disease. About 20 percent of male and about 26 percent of female helpers suffer from PTSD today. Furthermore, there was an approximately two and a half-fold increased risk of a heart attack and stroke among the volunteers with PTSD. The study was recently published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

6,000 helpers were observed over 10 years

A team of researchers led by Molly Remch from City University in New York and Zoey Laskaris from the University of Michigan examined the late health effects of the volunteers. In their investigations, the scientists accompanied over 6,000 people over a decade who had voluntarily supported the clean-up work. The subjects were thoroughly examined shortly after the salvage work. From 2012 to 2016, this group was medically monitored at regular intervals.

Already known events

The scientists assume that post-traumatic stress disorders are consistently considered an independent risk factor for a heart attack or stroke. According to the study, this has been demonstrated in past cohort studies. Nevertheless, the PTSD has not yet been officially recognized as a vascular risk factor. According to the researchers, the study results provide a wealth of evidence that PTSD is a strong independent risk factor for myocardial infarction and stroke.

Classic risk factors did not play a major role

The study was specifically designed to assess the relationship between early reactions to the Word Trade Center attack and possible cardiovascular outcomes. As the research team was surprised to find, classic cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity or high cholesterol did not play a major role in the examined helpers for the increased occurrence of heart diseases. Likewise, the massive dust pollution does not seem to have a decisive impact.

Traumatic stress triggers heart disease

The increased occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorders among the helpers was particularly striking. Around one in five men and one in four women among those involved developed such a mental illness. The subjects affected by PTSD also showed a 2.4-fold increased risk of heart attack and stroke in the further course of the study.

Can the results be transferred to other disasters?

The researchers do not know whether their results can be transferred to all 90,000 people who helped in the attacks. Nevertheless, they see a very high significance in the study results, since all participants had a similar traumatizing experience at the same time. Transferability to other major disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, floods or volcanic eruptions is also conceivable.

German expert comments on the study

Professor Dr. Karl-Heinz Ladwig from the Helmholtz Zentrum M√ľnchen considers this to be an important study. He was impressed by the results, but was not involved in the research. "If doctors got to see such patients on a regular basis, many health consequences could be averted," the expert told the dpa news agency. According to Ladwig, post-traumatic stress disorders are lengthy and difficult to treat. Among other things, this is due to the fact that sufferers tend to withdraw and neglect many things.

About post-traumatic stress

PTSD can develop as a result of an experienced trauma. The first symptoms often appear within the first six months after the experience. Fainted anger, increased irritability, excessive anxiety, sadness and emotional emptiness often occur. Physically, PTSD can manifest itself through sweating, tremors, nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath or rapid heartbeat. Disasters, accidents, violent crimes and armed conflicts are typical triggers. (vb)

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