SUNDAY, April 3 (HealthDay News) -- New Orleans residents still faced a threefold higher risk of heart attack four years after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a study finds.

Chronic stress, not being able to return home and a poorly functioning health system likely contribute to this situation, said the researchers, who updated their two-year post-Hurricane Katrina analysis of nearly 30,000 people.

"To our surprise, the persistent threefold increase in heart attack risk has occurred in the absence of any change in traditional risk factors -- for example, age, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes," Dr. Anand Irimpen, an associate professor of medicine at the Heart and Vascular Institute at Tulane University School of Medicine, said in an American College of Cardiology news release.

"We had some indication of Katrina's effect on heart health from our initial study, but it appears to be more far-reaching than expected. The factors we looked at two years ago have generally become more significant and new factors have emerged that appear to play a role in heart health," said Irimpen, who is also chief of cardiology for the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System.

In their two-year post-Katrina analysis, the researchers found that mental health problems (including depression, schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety disorder), marital status, or a history of heart disease did not appear to contribute to heart attacks.

But this new analysis suggests that these factors now have a significant impact on heart attack risk. There may be a time lag between the onset of mental health problems and resulting physical issues such as a heart attack, Irimpen suggested.

"Certainly chronic stress appears to play an ongoing role," he said. "It's leading to what I view as akin to a Post-Katrina Stress Disorder. Many of the patients we see are not yet back to their pre-Katrina residences, have not regained employment and are too stressed to pay attention to ideal health practices. They are more likely to smoke, overuse alcohol or other substances and are less likely to comply with treatment plans that can help prevent heart attacks."

The study was scheduled to be presented Sunday at the American College of Cardiology's annual scientific session, in New Orleans.

Experts note that research presented at meetings has not been subjected to the same type of rigorous scrutiny given to research published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about traumatic stress after a hurricane.