There’s a study currently underway at the Boston VA Healthcare Center, where researchers are reportedly finding that some combat vets are aging more quickly than the general public.

Last week, USA Today reported that America’s newest combat veterans, former soldiers and Marines in their 20s and 30s, appear to be growing old before their time. It said scientists are seeing early signs of heart disease, diabetes, slowed metabolism and obesity that would be more common to middle age or later.

The project’s co-director, William Milberg, a Harvard Medical School professor, was quoted as saying, “They should have been in the best shape of their lives. The big worry, of course, is we’re going to have to be taking care of them until they’re in their 70s. What’s going to happen to them in the long run?”

USA Today said some form of early aging seems most common to those with signs of blast-related concussion and PTSD, which seems to involve about 30 percent of the 340 vets being studied.

It quoted Milberg as saying that researchers were initially alarmed to discover a former soldier, younger than 40, with brain lesions, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. When they ran the patient through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, Milberg said the scans looked like they belonged to someone in their 70s,

“That’s when we got alerted that maybe we were going to see something like these precursors we associate with old age (but) in a younger population,” he told USA Today.

That was followed by a story in UK’s Daily Mail, in which Milberg was quoted as saying that the brains of about 150 veterans showed significant signs of stress.

When I asked the VA Boston Healthcare Center for a copy of their research report, I was told: “At this time there is no report or published paper. Drs. Milberg and McGlinchey are in the process of writing up their research for peer review and publication, so we have nothing we can send you.”

I don’t doubt the veracity of the published reports, but they appear to be based on preliminary data. It will bear watching to see what the final results will show.  And there’s no indication when this data will be published.

But the results as reported would certainly be consistent with what we already know about stress.

In his best-selling book “Brain Rules,” which is a must-buy for anyone interested in understanding the human brain, Dr. John Medina notes that chronic stress leads to heart attacks and strokes. And stress ravages the immune system, leaving people increasingly vulnerable to infection.

“Not surprisingly, people who experience chronic stress are sick more often,” he wrote. “A lot more often. One study showed that stressed individuals were three times as likely to suffer from the common cold. People were especially vulnerable to the cold-producing virus if the stressors were social in nature and lasted more than a month. They were also more likely to suffer from autoimmune disorders, such as asthma and diabetes.”

Medina said stress is behind more than half of the 550 million working days lost each year due to absenteeism. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserts that a full 80 percent of our medical expenditures are now stress-related,” he added.

So if the team of Boston neuroresearchers does find that combat vets, especially those suffering from PTSD and TBI, are aging more quickly than the rest of our population, it won’t be a huge surprise. But it should be a factor in the way we fund our healthcare treatment for vets in the decades to come.  

About the Author

Eric Newhouse

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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