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Sheldon Cohen

The Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill on Long-Term Health

With oil still spewing in the Gulf of Mexico, there will undoubtedly be catastrophic damage to the region's environment and economy. But, how will the disaster impact long-term health?

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) convened a workshop in New Orleans at the end of June to assess the spill's human health effects. The country's leading science experts were invited to examine a broad range of health issues. Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty Professor of Psychology, gave a presentation on psychological stress and its implications.

"There isn't a lot of evidence from previous oil spills in regard to long-term effects of health," said Cohen. "I talked about what we know about stress and disease risk and how this knowledge may apply to the oil spill."

According to Cohen's research, there are certain types of stressful events that are linked to increased risk of disease: threats to self-esteem, loss of purpose and meaning of life, loss of feelings of control, perception of unfair treatment and damage to social networks.

"When you look at what is happening to the people in the Gulf region, all of these stressful events are present," he said. "They're losing jobs and family businesses. They don't know how they'll be able to support their families or protect the environment. They're wary of BP's pledge of financial reimbursement. They have to watch as family and friends go through similar - or worse - situations."

Adults who deal with these stressors are more likely to suffer from depression, post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety while children are prone to emotional and social conflicts. However, Cohen's research has shown that these stressful events can also drastically affect physical health - even for healthy people. Stress can lead to coronary heart disease, hypertension and upper-respiratory infections. People with chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma can face increased deterioration or worsened symptoms.

So, is every person in the Gulf area in danger of having stress from the oil spill cause serious long-term health consequences? "Not necessarily," said Cohen. "Most people can effectively cope with even traumatic events. Those most susceptible to stress-induced effects on health include Individuals with low income and low education, those without strong supportive networks, and those who have failed to cope with other stressful events."

To manage the looming health threats, Cohen recommended to the IOM that several triggers that indicate a person may be suffering from stress need to be closely monitored: feelings of stress and depression, sleep quality, diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol and drug use. And, people with chronic illnesses need to be watched carefully to make sure that they are adequately taking care of themselves.

"Under stress, people typically don't take care of themselves," said Cohen. "For example, stressed people smoke and drink more, and fail to exercise and eat properly. We need to monitor and watch for individuals who engage in these behaviors over a long period of time. When you're dealing with such a large community - the entire Gulf region - it's a major challenge."

Cohen added, "Hurricane Katrina was only five years ago. In some ways, the oil spill is even a greater stressor because it's ongoing, its effects may last for years, and has many components that remain unpredictable and uncontrollable."

Watch Sheldon Cohen's presentation at the Institute of Medicine's Workshop, "Assessing the human health effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill," at

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