People with health problems face particular challenges

by Amelia Karraker, Health Scientist Administrator, Division of Behavioral and Social Research (DBSR).

ResearchScientific Resources

Harvey … Irma … Maria … hurricanes that won’t be forgotten any time soon. And, although they don’t have names, let’s not forget the Mexico City earthquake in September and the northern California wildfires in October. We know that the human, environmental, and economic costs of natural disasters are high. Studies by the Environmental Protection Agency show that some extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storm systems are occurring more frequently now than in the past—and this trend is expected to continue.

As we watched these disasters unfold on the news, we saw that people with health problems face particular challenges. And, regardless of their physical health status, many, many people will suffer from psychological issues caused by the loss of property and possessions—and most importantly—of a loved one.

For older adults, such challenges during a natural disaster can be compounded by income and disability status. For example, the deaths of 14 individuals living in a Hollywood, Florida, nursing home from exposure to prolonged extreme heat in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma have focused particular attention on how to best help older people who live in nursing homes and similar settings before, during, and after natural disasters.

The shock of these nursing home deaths tells us that formal care is at times significantly deficient in preparation for disasters, with terrible consequences. Yet, a much broader set of issues confronts us as we grapple with the difficulties that extreme weather presents to older adults. How can we better understand the social, psychological and biological pathways through which these extreme events affect health? What are the paths for resilience and recovery?

One recent study found that older adults exposed to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 experienced steeper increases in pain and functional limitations than those who were not exposed.

This and other studies have given us insights into the complex and unique challenges facing older adults during natural disasters. This research also generated more questions on topics such as:

Pros and cons of pre-disaster evacuation

Providing post-evacuation family and unpaid caregiving, as well as medical care for chronic conditions, including access to medications

Measuring immediate and subsequent environmental, industrial, and psychosocial stress exposure following a disaster.

When the top priority is to provide shelter, food, and water to people affected by a disaster, conducting research can pose significant response-time and logistical challenges. The NIH Disaster Research Response website has a wealth of useful information about time-sensitive funding opportunities, data collection tools (including social survey instruments and field protocols for environmental exposures), research protocols tailored to disaster research, and training resources. The site is managed by the National Institute on Environmental Health Sciences and is available for use by anyone.

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