War might be making young bodies old
Study finds that veterans in their 20s and 30s show signs of premature aging
BOSTON -- A litany of physical or emotional problems spill out as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans make their way, one by one, to the 11th floor of a VA hospital in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
The tragic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or battlefield concussion are all too evident. Even more alarming for researchers is emerging evidence that these newest American combat veterans -- former GIs and Marines in their 20s and 30s -- appear to be growing old before their time. Scientists see early signs of heart disease and diabetes, slowed metabolisms and obesity -- maladies more common to middle age or later.
"They should have been in the best shape of their lives," says William Milberg, a Harvard Medical School professor of psychology and project co-director. "The big worry, of course, is we're going to be taking care of them until they're in their 70s. What's going to happen to them in the long run?"
The research is in its early stages, and scientists with the Department of Veterans Affairs are rushing to understand it. If what they're seeing is a form of early aging, it seems most common to those with both blast-related concussion and PTSD -- about 30% of the veterans being studied in a long-term research effort. There is even imaging evidence of diminished gray matter in high- functioning areas of the brain, changes that shouldn't happen for decades, if at all.
Scientists say their theory may not be proved until they can study these veterans over the next few years, and it remains unclear how these findings might impact policies on the length and number of combat deployments.
However, the Army, mindful of the strain, is allowing troops more time between combat deployments -- something possible as the war in Afghanistan winds down -- and has shortened deployments from a year to nine months. The numbers suffering brain injury and PTSD continue to grow. The Pentagon says that since 2000, 244,000 servicemembers have suffered traumatic brain injuries ranging from mild to severe, both in and out of combat. Since the 9/11 attacks, the VA has treated about the same number of war-era veterans for PTSD.
"We're looking at people who are going to be having cognitive problems much earlier than they should be having them," says Regina McGlinchey, a neuropsychologist and project co-director.
A study last month from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that veterans ages 25-64 had more than twice the rate of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer than non- veterans.
Milberg says the people researchers are seeing in Boston "really have a lot of things going on at the same time. It's hard to know where one problem ends and another starts."
He and the other scientists say early aging might stem from the nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, where troops served long and repeated deployments at an unprecedented rate. This meant living under a high state of vigilance, managing stress over many months or even beyond a year, then doing it all over again and again with each subsequent combat tour.
Like a candle burning twice as bright, but also burning twice as fast, the effect of this prolonged stress on the human brain and body can wear it down, researchers say.
"Deployments are punctuated by very serious life-and-death exposures," says Ann Rasmusson, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, "that when they reach a certain level, change the internal chemistry, the physiology of people's bodies."