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Post-Disaster Dementia Instances May Increase for Elderly

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Cognitive decline may increase in vulnerable people

A recent study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests that dementia may be a potential health risk for the elderly following a disaster.

According to the study, cognitive decline may increase in vulnerable people, especially among the elderly who are unable to have contact with their home, families, neighbors, and other informal social networks.

Iwanuma, Japan

The study focused on elderly residents of the city of Iwanuma in Japan, an area that was completely inundated by the 2011 tsunami.

Seven months prior to the tsunami, an aging study called the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study (JAGES) was conducted in the same area. The study surveyed individual health and noted that 4.1 percent of respondents were listed as having dementia symptoms. In the follow-up study conducted by Harvard after the disaster, respondents showed an increase to 11.5 percent of individuals with noted symptoms of dementia.

Damage indicative of decline

Cognitive decline was highest among individuals in post-disaster temporary housing due to destruction or severe damage to their homes. The level of damage was indicative of the level of cognitive decline -- the more severely damaged the home, the greater the cognitive decline.

Lack of access to social interactions and informal networks and depression were also factors in the link to cognitive decline post-disaster. The study also noted that the death of family and/or friends had little impact on cognitive ability, in direct contrast to the inaccessibility to homes and informal social networks.

Findings from the study also indicated an increase in strokes and hypertension from 2.8 percent to 6.5 percent and from 54 percent to 57.2 percent, respectively.

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.