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The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks coincided with a decline in heart health among Utahns, according to a study by the Intermountain Heart Institute.
Researchers analyzed blood samples from Utah patients and found that telomeres, DNA segments affected by stress, had shortened in the months following the attacks in 2001.
The correlation was discovered accidentally. Scientists were examining whether air pollution had an effect on telomeres when they analyzed a set of samples that spanned September 2001.
"We noticed the telomere length dropped off rapidly in the month or two months following the terrorist attack," said John Carlquist, director of the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute Genetics Lab.
But it wasn't just telomeres that took a hit. The institute also saw a spike in patients admitted for heart attacks after September 2001, according to Stacey Knight, a genetic epidemiologist with the Heart Institute.
"It was significantly increased when we compared the year before (the attacks) to the year after," she said.
In 2001, terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners and crashed the planes into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Penn. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.
Carlquist said it's already known that stressful events can trigger a decline in heart health. But he said it was unusual to see widespread effects in a community so far from a national crisis.
"Even though we weren't participating directly in 9/11, it was a very stressful event for the entire country," Calquist said.
In a followup study, Knight said researchers hope to explore what impact other national and international events had on Utahns' DNA.
"What we would like to do is follow this up and even look at the market crash in 2008," she said.
Carlquist suggested that the modern media landscape, with a perpetually connected global reach, may increase the impact of a catastrophe. And major events likely affected community health prior to the World Trade Center attack, he said, but no one was looking.
"We didn't set out to look for this," he said. "This was an accidental observation."
He said the study doesn't necessarily mean that people should turn off their television sets and cancel their newspaper subscriptions. But people should be aware of the impact of stressors in their lives and take steps, such as exercise and healthy eating, to mitigate the harmful consequences.
"I think being proactive about stress reduction is a much better approach," he said.