The United States has been forced to look long and hard at the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder with considerably more focus as of late, as a raft of servicemen and women return home from global conflict zones with often life-affecting symptoms. The withdrawal of troops from the Middle East and other regions has brought about a sharp spike in the number of PTSD cases identified in the US, which is characterized by symptoms of anger, insomnia, crippling depression and a variety of other psychological disorders.
In the worst instances, PTSD is also known to lead to substance abuse, self-harming and even suicidal tendencies.
Further compounding concerns as to the long-term impact of PTSD, a new study made public in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry suggests that the condition could be causing those affected to age at a faster than normal rate. Researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System spoke with concern over the way in which PTSD may in fact be detrimentally affecting the respective patient’s biology, as well as their psychological wellbeing.
“This is the first study of its type to link PTSD, a psychological disorder with no established genetic basis, which is caused by external, traumatic stress, with long-term, systemic effects on a basic biological process such as aging,” explained senior author Dilip V. Jeste, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and director of the Center on Healthy Aging and Senior Care at UC San Diego.
Prior studies had already drawn strong links between accelerated senescence and other psychiatric health problems such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, though no specific study had examined the possibility of a correlation between PTSD and the same phenomenon. In this instance, the team led by Jeste collated data from a wide range of studies carried out over the last 15 years, in order to see if and how PSTD influences or triggers premature senescence.
With no specific definition of accelerated senescence to work with, the team instead looked into other factors associated with the aging process – specifically premature mortality, age-related medical conditions and leukocyte telomere length. When the data was collated at the end of the study, it came to light that those suffering from PTSD were not only more likely to develop age-related conditions and have shorter leukocyte telomeres, but also to suffer premature death.
“These findings do not speak to whether accelerated aging is specific to PTSD, but they do argue the need to re-conceptualize PTSD as something more than a mental illness,” commented the study’s co-author James B. Lohr, MD, professor of psychiatry.
“Early senescence, increased medical morbidity and premature mortality in PTSD have implications in health care beyond simply treating PTSD symptoms. Our findings warrant a deeper look at this phenomenon and a more integrated medical-psychiatric approach to their care.”