The symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be heartbreaking for the entire family. However, did you know there is a growing body of evidence that PTSD may actually cause heart problems in the sufferer?
In December, 2013’s issue of Biological Psychiatry, Jesse Turner and colleagues studied 663 participants, veterans from San Francisco VA Medical Center and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. The veterans were assessed for PTSD severity, and underwent treadmill stress tests while cardiologists measured heart activity using electrocardiography. Cardiac Ischemia was found to be present in 17% of the study participants who suffered from PTSD, but only 10% of the non-PTSD group.
This study even accounted for other factors which can cause cardiovascular disease, including depression, behavioral and psychosocial factors (such as tobacco, alcohol, and sleep problems,) and even biological factors like diabetes, high cholesterol and family history. This showed the researchers that it is likely that there are specific, biological changes in the body of PTSD sufferers that cause cardiovascular problems.
However, when researchers took these factors into account, PTSD sufferers were more than twice as likely to have cardiac ischemia. In the real world, PTSD often co-occurs with depression, PTSD sufferers are approximately twice as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and previous studies have shown tobacco use to be 2-4 times as prevalent in those with PTSD than without. Does this mean that PTSD sufferers are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease? A study in 2013, using Vietnam-era twins, actually found that twins with PTSD were more than twice as likely to have heart disease as the twin without PTSD.
Most people are aware of the link between stress and cardiovascular problems. When we think of stress, we imagine heavy traffic, a houseful of rowdy children, or stockbrokers on the trading floor. A veteran with PTSD, however, lives in stress constantly. In the middle of the night he may wake up in a cold sweat from a nightmare, or he may patrol his yard, convinced the noise he heard was that of an intruder, instead of a raccoon. He may re-experience the worst moments of his life while simply standing in the produce section of the supermarket, thousands of miles and forty years away from the jungles of Vietnam. It is becoming clearer everyday that the horrors of war do not end when the last shots are fired or the last troop is evacuated, but live on in the minds and hearts of our heroic veterans.