Studies Reveal PTSD Prevalent Among Older Veterans

Groundbreaking scientific reports, and media, begin to look at PTSD’s impact on our aging warriors. 

The term PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is relatively new. Coined in the 1970s, it didn’t become an official psychiatric diagnosis until 1980.

But reports of battle-related stress reactions are of course as old war itself, and there are a variety of “pre-PTSD” terms that all mean the same thing: everything from shell shock to battle fatigue and traumatic war neurosis.

Unfortunately, in Vietnam and prior wars, Veterans returning home who had symptoms of combat-related stress were often just told to “suck it up” or “put it all behind you and move in with your life.” Often, Veterans would hide their symptoms, often with working long hours or with alcohol abuse.

During the past two decades, however, researchers have begun to take a closer look at America’s older veterans to get a better idea of what percentage of them developed PTSD. Study results vary, but according to the New York Times, one large 1992 study concluded that 15.2 percent of Vietnam veterans had PTSD.

The media, too, is paying closer attention to the issue of PTSD in older veterans. In a poignant Stars & Stripes story this week, 87-year-old Gerald “Jerry” Lamb talks about how the images of the German city of Dresden after the Allied firebombing in February 1945 are still vivid in his mind.

 According to the New York Times, one large 1992 study concluded that 15.2 percent of Vietnam veterans had PTSD.

As an American prisoner of war, Lamb went out on numerous work details in the burning city to remove dead bodies. “It was like War of the Worlds,” said Lamb, who was kept in Slaughterhouse Five, a place where German merchants cut up meat in stalls before the war. The makeshift prison was made famous in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, who was a POW there along with Lamb.

It’s reasonable to assume that Lamm still suffers from PTSD.  Science concludes PTSD exists in veterans decades after their a traumatic event. But just how does PTSD manifest later in life among our veterans? And what impact can it have on physical health as our wounded warriors age? Some fascinating studies are beginning to answer these questions.

According to Medscape Medical News, investigators at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, DC, found that among a group of older veterans, 17 percent had symptoms of PTSD, and about 30 percent had traumatic brain injury (TBI).

“It looks like the prevalence of PTSD and TBI for veterans from Vietnam and other conflicts is the same as for those returning from newer wars, and we have a lot to learn by looking at resiliency and long-term consequences for these older vets. There is growing concern that PTSD may increase the risk of dementia later in life,” Windsong Hollis, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist with the Armed Forces Retirement Home, told Medscape Medical News.

In another report titled Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms among Older Adults: A Review, researchers suggest that PTSD symptoms can emerge or re-emerge late in life, and that age-related factors can interact with psychiatric symptoms and carry implications for clinical care.

The report notes that for many older Veterans, memories of wartime experiences can be upsetting long after completion of military service and can have a serious impact on physical as well as mental health. The report also notes that in a study of older male combat Veterans and ex-POWs of World War II and Korea (median age 71), the lifetime prevalence of PTSD was 53 percent and the prevalence of current PTSD was 29 percent.  Recent VA statistics obtained by Bergmann & Moore indicate approximately 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs are diagnosed with PTSD.

In another study titled Physician-Diagnosed Medical Disorders in Relation to PTSD Symptoms in Older Male Military Veteransthe association between physician-diagnosed medical disorders and combat-related PTSD symptoms was examined in 605 male combat veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict.  Physical exams were performed at periodic intervals beginning in the 1960s; PTSD symptoms were assessed in 1990, and PTSD symptoms were associated with increased onset of arterial, lower gastrointestinal, dermatologic, and musculoskeletal disorders.

This study is one of very few to document an association between PTSD and physical morbidity. The negative health outcomes associated with PTSD have important public health implications for Veterans, and beyond, because experts say more than half of the adult population in the United States has experienced a traumatic event and at least eight percent have had PTSD at some point.



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