Don't overlook terrorism's long-term effects on elders

September 23, 2002

A year after September 11, it is time to prepare for and prevent future terrorism, according to Judith A. Salerno, M.D., and Catherine Nagy. Their editorial, "Terrorism and Aging," appears in the September 2002 Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences. In it they warn clinicians, caregivers, and researchers--all health and aging professionals--to expect signs of trauma-related stress, and to look for unexplained infectious disease, which could be anthrax, in older people.

The neighborhood around the World Trade Center was home to a number of older people. "According to one estimate, as many as 6300 residents aged 65 and older live within a few blocks of the attack site, and at least three times that number live in neighborhoods below Canal Street that have been affected to some degree by the attacks," wrote Salerno and Nagy.

Those who lived anywhere from ground zero to a 100-mile radius of the World Trade Center site are at highest risk, but "the 9/11 terrorist attacks had a strong, sustained, and widespread psychological impact" on elders throughout the country, according to the authors.

Research shows that older soldiers who have lived through the stress of combat have a well-documented resilience and less helplessness in older age. So do adults of the generation that endured the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and World War II. However, the authors cite other research showing "some clinicians believe that new stresses may trigger memories of past traumatic events as well as new symptoms of loss, stress, and grief."

In the editorial, the authors list eight lessons that health care professionals can take from 9/11 and for the future. These range from awareness that even those a great distances from the attack will have trauma-related symptoms of stress, to a call for well-designed studies of the after-effects of 9/11 that focus on older people.
The Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences is a refereed publication of The Gerontological Society of America, the national organization of professionals in the field of aging.

The Gerontological Society of America

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