Study Shows That Natural Disasters can Impact the Mental Health of Older Adults Years Later

Rain drops into a puddle.

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 20, 2022) – A recent study co-authored by Thoin Begum, a recent PhD graduate of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), EHS faculty member Shao Lin, and Ziqiang Lin of the Department of Mathematics, examines the short and long-term mental health effects of Hurricane Sandy on adults 64 years and older. As climate change increases the occurrence of natural disasters, this type of research is crucial for ensuring that adequate public health resources are allocated to the populations most impacted.

The study builds on a body of research that suggests that many diseases can become more serious in the wake of mental and physical stress caused by hurricanes and other extreme weather events. For example, the authors noted that post-Sandy, the number of individuals in the study with eight or more co-morbidities increased from 15 to more than 25 percent of the sample, and the average length of hospital stay once admitted also increased.

But mental health in particular tends to decline significantly shortly after a natural disaster, with higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and suicide all having been well documented in previous research. Though many other researchers have studied the impact of natural disasters on mental health, Begum and Lin’s paper is the first study to examine both the short- and long-term mental health effects in an aging population.

Older people tend to have poorer health at baseline and a higher prevalence of chronic illness, disability, and limited mobility, which makes adapting to the shock of natural disasters more challenging.  To find out if seniors also struggle more with mental health disorders after extreme weather events, the authors used hospital admissions and emergency department data collected from the New York State Department of Health. They then narrowed this data down to the counties affected by the storm and looked at the rates of emergency room visits and hospital admissions for a wide range of mental health conditions at 3 months, 1 year, 2 years, and 3 years post-Hurricane Sandy.

The results show that older adults were more likely to visit an emergency department for a mental health concern at all four intervals, with increases of 32 percent, 9 percent, 15 percent, and 10 percent respectively. Although mental health hospitalizations initially did not increase, they were elevated by 8 percent one year later. In the short term, subjects were more likely to be seen for mood disorders like anxiety and depression, while in the longer term, individuals were at greater risk for psychosis, mood, and adjustment disorders.

Demographics also appear to affect the likelihood of an individual experiencing a poor mental health outcome after a major weather event. Those with low socio-economic status were more vulnerable to the immediate and long-term effects of Hurricane Sandy, but the most starkly affected populations were African Americans and the uninsured, who both faced higher risks of developing a mental health disorder at every interval of the study. Additionally, men with low socioeconomic status had delayed but increased risks of developing a mental health disorder one to three years after Hurricane Sandy.

“It is concerning that adverse psychological trauma associated with experiencing Sandy is still evident years after the incident, indicating that disaster events require follow-up and monitoring of their long-term health impacts,” says Shao Lin. “It is also apparent that those who are already disadvantaged tend to bear the brunt of these increased risks. We must closely monitor populations that have experienced severe climate-related events and offer more resources and support to those most vulnerable.”