Veterans who served in the Vietnam War and who developed post-traumatic stress disorder have a greater risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases — and a nearly two times higher risk of earlier death — than veterans not suffering with PTSD.
The results are found in the preliminary findings of the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study outlined this month at the American Psychological Association Convention in Washington, D.C.
The findings are specific to Vietnam veterans, but they are likely to have implications for post-traumatic stress treatment and disability-benefit programs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
The study is a follow-up of previous research on the impact of military service on the mental and physical health of Vietnam veterans. The original study was completed 25 years ago.
Death records and other assessments from the previous study showed that, among male Vietnam veterans, those who had war zone PTSD were nearly twice as likely to die in the 25 years between the two studies than those who did not, even after accounting for demographic factors such as sex and ethnicity. PTSD was associated with increased mortality due to cancer and external causes of death.
For the majority of veterans who served in Vietnam, the symptoms of PTSD were found to be stable over the course of the past 25 years. However, 13 percent of Vietnam vets reported substantial increases in PTSD symptoms and 4.6 percent reported decreased symptoms, according to Abt Associates, a research firm based in Cambridge, Mass.
Members of minority groups who enlisted before finishing high school were especially likely to develop such war-related trauma, as were those veterans who had killed multiple times in combat, the study found.
The findings suggest that for a significant segment of veterans, PTSD symptoms are chronic and long-lasting, and that particular groups of veterans may be at elevated risk of developing PTSD.