It’s well known that combat takes a toll on the mental health of soldiers -- for instance, studies of people who served in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have found that those who experienced combat were two to three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than their counterparts who remained out of harm’s way. But studies have been less consistent in determining how many soldiers develop PTSD and other mental health disorders after deployment.
So a group of experts from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command examined 13,226 anonymous surveys completed by veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some of those veterans were part of active duty Army divisions, and others served in National Guard infantry brigades.
Using a strict definition of PTSD, the researchers found that roughly 1 in 10 survey-takers had PTSD that was severe enough to cause “serious functional impairment.” The prevalence ranged from 7.7% to 8.9% for active duty Army personnel and from 6.7% to 12.4% for members of the National Guard. In both cases, the numbers went up over the first 12 months of their deployments.
When adding serious depression to the mix, the researchers found that 8.5% to14% of the veterans had a mental health problem that made it “very difficult” or “extremely difficult” to function properly. The findings are published in Tuesday’s edition of Archives of General Psychiatry.
The problems of PTSD can last long after soldiers retire from combat duties, according to a second study from the same journal.
Researchers from UC San Francisco and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center examined the health records of 181,093 vets who were at least 55 years old. They found that the vets who had been diagnosed with PTSD were almost twice as likely to have dementia compared with the vets who did not have PTSD.
It’s not known how PTSD would increase the risk of dementia, but the researchers offer several theories. Perhaps PTSD robs veterans of some of their cognitive reserve, leaving them more vulnerable to dementia. The chronic stress associated with PTSD may also damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a key role in learning and memory.
Scientists are researching ways of preventing cases of PTSD. A study released this year found that soldiers who received morphine within the first few hours of a painful combat injury were 50% less likely to develop PTSD than those who didn’t get the powerful analgesic. A hypertension drug called prazosin has also been shown to reduce nightmares in vets with PTSD.
-- Karen Kaplan
Photo: PTSD -- and its ill effects -- can linger long after combat ends. Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times