Well it has been a month now, how are the resolutions going? I hope you had a fantastic holiday season. For many, resolutions are challenging, or they become a distraction to their daily lives and then get forgotten (sound familiar). Statistically, this usually happens within the first month. You have to make it part of your daily routine! For me, of course, bit onto the resolution monster and took on two tasks; to improve my health and my knowledge. The health portion is a slow and long-term goal that will take time but can be achieved with persistence and will-power. Since I retired from the military in has been a goal of mine to obtain my Ph.D. in Psychology, so the gaining knowledge part has always been and will be a part of my life. However, my hunger for knowledge has been directed toward veteran-centric topics that affect or help improve veterans' lives every day. One of these topics can be displayed in the one that I have chosen today in how PTSD affects the mental and physical aging process of veterans.
It is a well-known fact that veterans experience extreme amounts of stress with any traumatic event, causing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some of you may have heard of the term “aging overnight” after a traumatic event. Scientists call this phenomenon the “Marie Antionette Syndrome,” which was named after a French queen who was captured after fleeing Paris and sentenced to death by guillotine when observers claimed her hair turned white from shock. While these accounts of the queen’s hair were perhaps legend, scientists suspected that chronic psychological stress triggered from events of war, abuse, or imprisonment might have accelerated her aging, leading to the early onset of aging that ended in premature death.
Two recent studies were conducted on the links between PTSD in veterans and accelerated aging. It was discovered that many vets with PTSD are aging too fast, at a surprisingly young age. “We see evidence, on multiple levels, of accelerated aging among very young veterans—people in their early 30s, which will snowball into major health problems down the road” (Moran, 2016). The idea of traumatic events having physical effects on people has been around for some time now; however, the concepts of these traumatic events having biological consequences that produce visible signs of aging are relatively new. Recent studies have shown that this process is occurring on a cellular level and even affecting a person’s DNA. A study in 2015 has shown that “Methylation is one of the primary ways how the body turns genes on and off, and certain patterns of DNA methylation correlate to a person’s chronological age” (Moran, 2016). In another Psychoneuroendocrinology study, 281 veterans were studied who were exposed to trauma. By examining their health information - including brain scans, blood tests, and the results of comprehensive psychological exams—they discovered small but significant evidence that veterans with PTSD had accelerated aging of their DNA.
“As the human body ages, DNA does a log of flip-flopping were regions that are methylated become unmethylated and vice versa. This pattern appears across genes is involved with cell death, neurodegeneration, cardiac function, and other cellular processes. There is some variability, but it makes sense that they are involved with aging” (Moran, 2016). A second study conducted in 2016 examined the broader, age-related health consequences of PTSD. Specifically, "metabolic syndromes were examined including obesity, abnormal blood lipids, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, high blood sugar that can be attributed to Type 2 diabetes, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Metabolic syndrome is elevated among veterans, with about 25 percent affected. That number may increase to 40 percent among people with PTSD" (Moran, 2016).
Researchers wondered exactly how PTSD correlated to metabolic syndrome and whether the two together led to reduced cortical thickness—a shrinking of specific brain areas responsible for things like emotional regulation and memory. Health information from 346 military veterans who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Researchers found that PTSD was directly associated with metabolic syndrome and that metabolic syndrome was strongly associated with reduced cortical thickness. These findings are significant because they highlight a problem, metabolic syndrome, which is not usually considered in treating PTSD and is critical for intervention. Furthermore, they suggest that clinicians may need to expand their repertoire of treatments for PTSD to target sleep, diet, and exercise.
The traditional treatment for PTSD usually involves psychotherapy that focuses on the memories of the traumatic events. This treatment is undeniably relevant and essential to the successful treatment of the veteran, but recent studies have suggested that PTSD is much bigger than just the veteran’s memory. The mind and memory are affected and influenced by many biological changes in the body, so the whole body must be addressed to heal the veteran as a whole.
So hopefully, this article helps you improve your knowledge as a veteran and maybe educating other veterans in their quest to recover from their injuries. Your goal as a veteran should be to help other veterans in your community. So, in whatever capacity it may be, help a veteran this year to gain some knowledge to improve their lives, increase their independence, acquire a friend, or achieve a smile. Have a great month! I will see you next time.
Moran, B. (2016). Aging too Fast, Too Young. Retrieved from https://www.bu.edu/research/articles/ptsd-accelerated-aging/