Aging vets take stress disorder to heart

Veterans grappling for decades with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a greater risk of developing and dying from heart disease than do their peers who don’t suffer from the stress ailment, according to a long-term study.

Male military veterans who approach their senior years with pronounced PTSD symptoms experience a particularly large number of nonfatal heart attacks and fatal heart conditions, say psychologist Laura D. Kubzansky of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and her colleagues.

Kubzansky’s team analyzed data from 1,002 veterans who completed a PTSD survey in 1990 and another 944 vets who responded to a survey in 1986. Participants ranged in age from 52 to 70. None had previously been diagnosed with heart disease. Each survey probed for PTSD symptoms triggered by combat experiences. These symptoms include recurring thoughts of a past trauma, intense distress when reminded of the event, feelings of detachment, and an exaggerated startle response.

The researchers then tracked heart-related illnesses and fatalities among the vets through May 2001.

Even after the researchers accounted for depression in some men, those reporting numerous PTSD symptoms experienced substantially more heart ailments than the others did, the scientists report in the January Archives of General Psychiatry. Biological pathways by which PTSD promotes heart disease remain unclear, they say.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.