Recent interest has been paid to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and rates among returning soldiers. But understanding what PTSD does to those veterans who have been diagnosed is another important line of research. A recent study has investigated a potential link between veterans who are diagnosed with PTSD their future rates of being diagnosed with dementia. Dementia is a broad definition for cognitive impairments that classically include memory loss, and impaired judgments and language. Alzheimer’s disease is one form of dementia, though many other forms exist. So why would PTSD be linked to the development of dementia? Other studies have found that veterans with PTSD perform more poorly on cognitive tests than veterans who have not been diagnosed with PTSD. Knowing that PTSD affects cognitive performance, these researchers were interested in investigating this link, and possibly exploring why this occurs.
The results suggest that veterans with PTSD are twice as likely to develop dementia than veterans without PTSD. Even after the investigators adjusted for demographics, other medical conditions, other psychiatric conditions and head trauma, the results suggested a significant increase in dementia diagnoses among veterans with PTSD (compared to veterans without PTSD).
This is the first study to investigate this link, so stay tuned for more research in this area. First, it is important for researchers to understand why PTSD may be related to more dementia diagnoses. The researchers suggest a few possible mechanisms for this relationship. The one I find most likely is the increased incidence of chronic stress in the veteran PTSD population. This chronic stress has effects on biology and brain chemistry, which may lead to the changes in the brain that support dementia’s development. Future studies should consider if this increased risk of dementia is reduced if veterans receive therapy to address their PTSD diagnosis. This study did not collect data on therapy, and this could really help us understand what steps we may be able to take to help veterans. If nothing else, this study should encourage healthcare providers to be aware of this link and closely follow veterans’ cognitive abilities as they age.
One thing is clear, and this study serves as a reminder: veterans face challenges that many of us cannot begin to understand. As more veterans return from Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, the United States has a duty to help them readjust. Some may be diagnosed with PTSD, and that may be inevitable. However, with greater understanding about the etiology and treatment for PTSD, we can help those who serve remember how much we appreciate their sacrifices.
Happy Veterans Day to veterans and those on active duty. Thank you for your service!