GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – With many in the east still reeling from Hurricane Matthew, a new study linking dementia to natural disasters could add insult to injury.
The Harvard University study found that the loss of property and loved ones in the wake of natural disasters like Matthew can increase the symptoms of dementia in elderly people. Researchers followed over 3,000 elderly survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. They found those who were forced out of their homes or had their homes destroyed saw the highest increase in dementia symptoms.
“They were starting to see a higher prevalence of dementia in people that especially had to go out of their own homes and go to a supplemental type of housing,” said Sharon Elliot, a health aging specialist at the Pitt County Council on Aging.
Surprisingly, the study found the loss of family and friends did not have an impact on cognitive abilities.
“For older adults, their home is their life, and they become greatly attached to it, said Rick Zeck, the Council on Aging’s executive director. “Anytime there is a traumatic weather event that causes them to be displaced from their home, it’s extremely traumatic and stress-inducing.”
Stress from a loss seems to be the driving factor.
“It did confirm a lot of what we already know about stress and dementia,” said Elliot. “There have been some studies on even if you have chronic stress in middle age how that increases your risk of dementia.”
It’s unclear at this point exactly what lingering effects Hurricane Matthew could have on elderly people in eastern North Carolina, but it’s something that those who care for them will keep a close eye on.
Elliot said staying active and sticking to a healthy diet can offset a higher risk for dementia.