UCSF Study Finds PTSD Takes a Physical Toll

By Kurt Wagner
|  Thursday, Jun 23, 2011  |  Updated 10:23 AM PDT
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Many troops come home from fighting with long term emotional scars.  Marianne Favro has the new discovery about the impact of post traumatic stress disorder.

Many troops come home from fighting with long term emotional scars. Marianne Favro has the new discovery about the impact of post traumatic stress disorder.

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With Wednesday’s announcement by President Barack Obama to bring home nearly one-third of U.S. troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, many feel that soldiers may soon be out of harm’s way.

But the latest research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – an anxiety disorder common in Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans – shows that having PTSD has physical consequences as well, meaning a potentially long road to recovery by those soldiers returning stateside.

New research shows that those diagnosed with PTSD are more likely to suffer from physical ailments, such as heart disease or a stroke and nearly twice as likely to suffer from dementia, according to researchers form the University of California, San Francisco. Research showed blood flow to the brain during continuous fight or flight response situations leads to chronic high blood pressure.

The information was made public during a press conference Wednesday at the Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel in downtown San Francisco just hours before Obama’s speech.

“We have found that people with PTSD have a higher rate of heart disease, they have a higher rate of developing dementia,” said Dr. Thomas Neylan, director of the PTSD program at San Francisco VA Medical Center. “So we know that people with PTSD, it’s a condition that affects the body.”

Neylan estimates that up to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans will be diagnosed with PTSD, a disorder that has high correlations to issues like veteran homelessness and suicide.

In May, former Rhode Island congressman, Patrick Kennedy, founded “One Mind for Research,” a campaign focused on improving funding and research efforts in brain science. Kennedy, the nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, spoke Wednesday on the importance of treating soldiers with PTSD the same as any soldiers with physical injuries resulting from services abroad. Just because PTSD may not be physically visible, he says, doesn’t mean it is any less serious.

“There is no excuse for us to say these are not real wounds,” said Kennedy. “So the question is are we going to be there for (veterans) just as they were for us?”

One problem with diagnosing PTSD in veterans is that only 46 percent of soldiers seek the medical help available to them, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. One veteran who did seek help, former Navy Seal Jim Hatch, was diagnosed with PTSD after being shot in the leg in Afghanistan in 2009. His advice to other veterans: ask for help.

“It’s not something that there’s a manual for, it’s not something that there’s a briefing for,” he said. “Don’t be arrogant. Get help.”

Wednesday’s press conference served as a precursor for Thursday’s research conference put on by the Veteran’s Health Research Institute titled, “The Brain and War.” The annual conference is open to the public and will take place at the Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel at 1 p.m.
 

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