Despite increasing evidence and published medical studies that there is a link between Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and cardiovascular disease, the VA continues to deny veteran’s claims for heart conditions secondary to PTSD.
PTSD develops after exposure to particularly traumatic events. Its severity depends on the nature and intensity of the trauma. Recent studies have shown that it also depends on the susceptibility of the exposed person.
For instance, a study of a brain chemical called neuropeptide Y, which has been called the “resiliency hormone”, that is measured in blood or spinal fluid, suggest that Navy Seals and Green Berets tend to have naturally high levels of the hormone in the blood in response to acute stress. These high levels of the hormone could help explain their mental and emotional resilience. Lower levels of the peptide were found in people with PTSD, compared with those without the disorder. Interestingly, according to the study, the hormone is also implicated as a factor in heart disease, although its exact role is not yet clear. (Marine Resiliency Study, Dewleen G Baker M.D., VA San Diego Healthcare System, San Diego, CA, Funding Period: October 2009 – September 2012)
Veterans with PTSD experience many chronic symptoms that have been found to have a significant effect on physiological systems that over time have adverse effect on the body. There are four hallmarks of PTSD:
- Reliving the event
- Avoiding situations that recall the event
- Negative changes in beliefs and feelings
- Feeling keyed up also called hyperarousal
For veterans with PTSD, memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time, through flashbacks and nightmares. Memories are frequently triggered by sights, sounds and even smells. When they occur, people may feel the same fear and horror they did when the event took place. Those with PTSD may also feel on constant alert and on the look-out for danger. These reactions cause a “fight or flight” response, which is how the body responds to danger and threats. A cascade of hormones are secreted when this occurs, triggering changes throughout the tissues and organs of the body. The heart beats faster, arteries constrict, blood pressure increases. The body starts preparing for battle – glucose levels rise, platelets in the blood become sticker. It’s a normal life-saving miracle that is built within us if we find ourselves fleeing from imminent danger. But when this process happens many times over, in response to chronic emotional stress, the lining of the arteries gets damaged and the heart muscle weakens. It becomes more a destructive pattern than a protective one.
Although the association between PTSD and cardiovascular disease is complicated by health risk behaviors such as smoking, obesity, and family history, there are many studies independent of traditional cardiac risk factors associating PTSD and heart disease.
Many times the VA denies claims for heart disease secondary to PTSD stating that a heart condition is caused by plaque built-up in the artery, without any further reasoning. Do not deter from pursuing your claim for heart disease if you were denied. As the medical community continues to explore additional mechanisms linking PTSD and cardiovascular disease, all research seems to be moving in the direction of establishing a direct causal link between PTSD and heart disease.