Natural disasters, stress, and health
April 12, 2022: UF mathematician Burton Singer contributed to a conceptual framework that can link physiological factors related to stress with negative health outcomes following natural disasters.
Stress and health are intimately connected, and stress is a risk factor in many modern chronic diseases. New research, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, proposes that the increasing frequency of massive traumatic events—such as natural disasters, pandemics, and war—results in widespread toxic stress which can later lead to negative health effects in the event’s aftermath.
While news may tend to focus on the direct effects of mass trauma events, such as deaths or injuries, stress-induced illness may also follow, according to work by UF mathematician Burton Singer. Singer is a distinguished visiting professor of epidemiology in the UF College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and he is also a faculty member in the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute.
The new work explores a concept known as allostatic load, which represents the price paid by the body for responding to repetitive and diverse forms of stressful experiences. It’s based on the idea of allostasis which is a process of physiological adaptation to acute stress that restores a condition of homeostasis in the face of challenges. Over time, cumulative exposure to stressful challenge leads to wear and tear on the body, cumulation of allostatic load, and an increased susceptibility to disease.
Singer and his coauthors developed a framework that melds aspects of psychosocial and physiological allostatic load to estimate its burden in people affected by disasters and traumatic events. These estimates could be used to gauge the short- and long- term health effects of disasters, or to predict or mitigate prevention of specific illnesses or conditions. The framework could even be leveraged for use in an observing system focused upon post-disaster human health, the authors say.
Sandifer PA, Juster RP, Seeman TE, Lichtveld MY, Singer BH. Allostatic load in the context of disasters. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2022;140:105725. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2022.105725
Written by DeLene Beeland