Trauma of War Hits Troops Years Later

War is over, but another fight begins

Last year researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revisited more than 18,000 Vietnam veterans who had been subjects of a detailed health survey in 1985, to see who had died and how. For the first five years after their return home, men with combat experience appeared more likely to have died of accidents, overdoses and the like. After that, they seemed no more at risk than comrades who had spent the war in non-combat roles.

But, the CDC study took no account of whether the soldiers were suffering from PTSD. Joseph Boscarino of the New York Academy of Medicine has now re-analysed the 1985 data to assess which men were suffering from the condition. That analysis, to be published in Annals of Epidemiology, reveals stark differences in death rates persisting 30 years after the end of the Vietnam conflict. All men with PTSD, whether from combat experience or not, were more likely to die from "external causes" such as accidents, drugs or suicide. But men who developed PTSD as a consequence of combat were also more likely to die of heart disease and, surprisingly, various kinds of cancer.

"Other studies have found a link between heart disease and stress, but this is the first time there has been such a direct association with PTSD so many years later," Boscarino told New Scientist. "The cancer surprised us, and it isn't explained by differences in smoking."

People with PTSD may experience long-term changes in various immune reactions, and in levels of the stress hormone cortisol and chemicals such as adrenalin and dopamine that underlie fight-or-flight reflexes, Boscarino says. He found a direct relationship between the amount of combat exposure and the reduction in cortisol levels. "The excess deaths in both PTSD groups show that stress can kill," he says.; Source: New Scientist