Study: Combat vets more likely to experience mental health issues as they age

Navy veteran Peter Johnson receives acupuncture at the VA Greenville Health Care Center, N.C., in November 2016 to help relieve chronic headaches caused by massive head and eye injuries he suffered during the Vietnam War.


By THE REGISTER-GUARD Published: July 10, 2019

EUGENE, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — Military veterans exposed to combat are more likely to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety later in life than veterans who did not see combat, an Oregon State University study shows.

The findings suggest that military service, and particularly combat experience, is a variable in research on aging, said Carolyn Aldwin, director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences and one of the study's authors.

The findings recently were published in the journal Psychology and Aging. The lead author is Hyunyup Lee, who conducted the research as a doctoral student at OSU; co-authors are Soyoung Choun of OSU and Avron Spiro III of Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System. The research was funded by the National Institutes on Aging and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There is little research that examines the effects of combat exposure on aging and in particular on the impacts of combat on mental health in late life, Aldwin said. Many aging studies ask about participants' status as veterans, but don't look at differences between those who were exposed to combat and those who weren't, according to an OSU news release.

Using data from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study, a longitudinal study that began in the 1960s to investigate aging in initially healthy men, researchers explored the relationship between combat exposure and depressive and anxiety symptoms, as well as self-rated health and stressful life events.

They found that increased rates of mental health symptoms in late life were found only among combat veterans. The increases were not seen in veterans who had not been exposed to combat.

Generally, mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety tend to decrease or remain stable during adulthood but can increase in later life. The researchers found that combat exposure has a unique impact on that trajectory, independent of other health issues or stressful life events.

"In late life, it's pretty normal to do a life review," Aldwin said. "For combat veterans, that review of life experiences and losses may have more of an impact on their mental health. They may need help to see meaning in their service and not just dwell on the horrors of war."

Veterans' homecoming experience also may color how they view their service later in life, Aldwin said. Welcoming veterans home and focusing on reintegration could help to reduce the mental toll of their service over time.

Most of the veterans in the study served in World War II or Korea. Additional research is need to understand more about how veterans' experiences may vary from war to war, Aldwin said.

The Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs offers resources for veterans struggling with mental health issues. For more information visit, www.oregon.gov/ODVA/Pages/default.aspx.

©2019 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.)
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