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Disaster makes people with depressive symptoms less healthy

People who exhibit even a few depressive symptoms before a major life stressor, such as a disaster, may experience an increase in inflammation - a major risk factor for heart disease and other negative health conditions - after the event, according to new research from Rice University.

The findings have important implications for managing employees following traumatic crisis situations at work.

The study, ‘An Evaluation of Perceived Health Risk and Depressive Symptoms Before a Disaster in Predicting Post-Disaster Inflammation’, will appear in an upcoming edition of Psychosomatic Medicine.

The study followed 124 people (38 males and 86 females, including whites, Hispanics and African-Americans) who lived in Texas City, Texas, before and after a petrochemical refinery in the city exploded March 23, 2005. The explosion killed 15 workers, injured more than 170 others and shook buildings as far as 10 miles away.

The researchers found that after the disaster, study participants who beforehand exhibited even minor depressive symptoms (such as a feeling of fatigue or sadness) and identified concern for their physical health had a 75 percent increase in their blood of C-reactive protein, Tumor necrosis factor receptor 1 and Interleukin 6, all of which are immune markers that signal inflammation in the body. Participants who did not display depressive symptoms or identify concern for their physical health beforehand saw no increase in the immune markers after the disaster.

"We found that people who are slightly depressed and stressed out about their health risks prior to a disaster had a negative response to the actual disaster in the form of these immune markers showing up in their bloodstream," said Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice and one of the study's authors. "If you're already above the baseline for mental and physical health, your immune system is primed to have a much more dramatic effect. This could explain other researchers' findings demonstrating increased cardiovascular events (any event that can damage the heart muscle) following natural disasters."

Fagundes hopes the study will encourage future work focusing on exposure to disasters and the related negative mental and physical health outcomes.

The study's lead author was Kyle Murdock, a former postdoctoral research fellow in Rice's Department of Psychology (now an assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University). Fagundes was the senior author. Other authors included Raymond Stowe of Microgen Laboratories, Kristen Peek of the Department of Preventative Medicine and Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch and Savannah Lawrence, a Rice senior studying psychology.

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