Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans may lead to accelerated aging, raise early death risk

By: Dr. Victor Marchione | Mental Health | Friday, March 11, 2016 - 01:00 PM

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veteransPost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans may lead to accelerated aging and raises the risk of early death. PTSD is a psychological disorder associated with severe trauma, which contributes to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse. PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced trauma, but it is often particularly associated with veterans coming back from war.

Researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System have found that PTSD not only affects the individual mentally, but it can also accelerate aging and increase the risk of early death.

Senior author Dilip V. Jeste said, “This is the first study of its type to link PTSD, a psychological disorder with no established genetic basis, which is caused by external, traumatic stress, with long-term, systemic effects on a basic biological process such as aging.”

Previous connections had been made between PTSD and an increased risk of psychological conditions like schizophrenia, but the researchers were intrigued to determine a possible link between PTSD and aging. The researchers reviewed empirical studies that covered multiple databases since 2000.

The evidence fell into three categories: biological indicators or biomarkers such as leukocyte telomere length (LTL), earlier occurrence or higher prevalence of medical conditions associated with advanced age, and premature mortality.

Studies that looked at LTL found shorter telomeres – a sign of aging – in those with PTSD. The researchers also found pro-inflammatory markers, such as an increase in C-reactive protein and tumor necrosis in PTSD. Majority of studies also found an association between PTSD and comorbidity, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal ulcers, and accelerated aging.

First author James B. Lohr said, “These findings do not speak to whether accelerated aging is specific to PTSD, but they do argue the need to re-conceptualize PTSD as something more than a mental illness. Early senescence, increased medical morbidity, and premature mortality in PTSD have implications in health care beyond simply treating PTSD symptoms. Our findings warrant a deeper look at this phenomenon and a more integrated medical-psychiatric approach to their care.”

PTSD more common than you think

Post-traumatic stress disorder in adults is more common than you think. PTSD United, a non-profit organization to support and connect people with the disorder, reports that 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. This equates to approximately 223.4 million people.

Up to 20 percent of these people go on to develop PTSD. Which means an estimated 8 percent of Americans − 24.4 million people − have PTSD at any given time. That is equal to the total population of Texas. Interesting, too, roughly one out of every nine women develops PTSD, making them about twice as likely as men.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Recurring distressing memories of the traumatic event or reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the event
  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, activities, or people that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Irritability, angry outbursts, or aggressive behavior
  • Always being on guard for danger and easily startled
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Negative feelings about yourself, other people, or the future
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed

As you can see, post-traumatic stress disorder can really take over a person’s life. Seeking out treatment is highly important in order to slow down aging, reduce your risk of comorbid diseases, and lower your risk of death.

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