Witnessing a natural disaster impacts your health for over 10 years

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — From hurricanes to wildfires, living through a natural disaster can adversely affect your physical health for more than a decade, a new study explains.

Fourteen years after surviving the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, researchers found that women displayed notably low cortisol levels. The individuals most impacted often displayed symptoms of PTSD following the devastation in Aceh, Indonesia, on Dec. 26, 2004. More than a decade later, these survivors exhibited poorer physical and psycho-social health compared to those from neighboring coastal areas that the tsunami did not affect.

Cortisol is a stress hormone that surges during a fight or flight response. Sustained high stress can impair the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which releases cortisol. A collaboration between researchers at American and Indonesian universities found that prolonged elevated stress might lead to the “burnout” of the HPA-axis, resulting in long-term reduced cortisol levels. Such low cortisol levels, like those observed in tsunami survivors, can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, mood fluctuations, dizziness, weight loss, and muscle weakness.

The research team observed that the destruction caused by the Indian Ocean was visually reminiscent of the hurricanes and powerful storms that often hit the North Carolina coast. Consequently, they believe their findings highlight a long-term consequence of climate change, especially when it triggers severe weather events.

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“These effects are greatest for women who reported elevated levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms for two years after the tsunami,” says study lead Professor Elizabeth Frankenberg from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, in a media release. “Lessons learned from following people in Aceh over 20 years provides important insights into the likely longer-term impacts of climate change on populations in the U.S. and across the globe.”

The researchers have been examining the survivors of the Indonesian tsunami, particularly those they had interviewed before the disaster. The study’s recent findings were based on analyzing hair samples from adults 14 years post-tsunami.

“An important finding is that people with low levels of cortisol are in worse physical and psycho-social health 14 years after the tsunami, evidence of the long reach of the stresses of the tsunami and its aftermath,” says Professor Duncan Thomas of Princeton University, who co-directed the extensive study.

The STAR study included experts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, SurveyMETER (Indonesia), Harvard University, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Southern California.

The latest findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

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