ASK PHYSICIANS: PTSD increases risk of ischemic heart disease | Lifestyles



Dear doctor: I am the sister of a veteran and I am very interested in the recent study on people with PTSD who are at higher risk for heart problems. Can you please talk about this? My family suspects that our sister has PTSD, but they won’t let us talk about it. We are worried about her and wish we could help her.

Dear reader: You are referring to a study that appeared last spring in the medical journal JAMA Cardiology. Researchers found that female veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder had a significantly increased risk of developing ischemic heart disease. It is a condition in which the coronary arteries constrict, which means that the volume of oxygen and nutrients reaching the heart is reduced. Ischemic heart disease can lead to a range of health problems, including heart attack, and it is one of the leading causes of death worldwide.

Researchers in the study you are asking about examined two years of electronic health records of nearly 400,000 female military veterans. About a third of the women in the study were diagnosed with PTSD. Data showed that female veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder were 44% more likely to develop ischemic heart disease than those without PTSD. A previous study found an 18% increase in heart disease among male veterans with PTSD. All of this corresponds to decades of research, which shows that the biochemical changes triggered by chronic stress can cause significant damage to the cardiovascular system.

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For those who are unfamiliar, post-traumatic stress disorder is a collection of symptoms that can develop after a person survives an extreme, dangerous, or frightening incident. It may be a one-time event, such as a car accident or physical assault, or it may be an ongoing high stress situation, such as living or serving in a war zone. It is estimated that up to 20% of those who served in military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. People who develop the disorder often have unwanted thoughts or memories associated with the event. This can lead to a persistent undercurrent of anxiety or discomfort.

People living with PTSD often describe feeling numb, detached or separated from their emotions and unable to resume the rhythms of daily life. They can jump easily, have trouble sleeping, have repeated nightmares, feel unsafe in ordinary situations, and suffer from depression. Treatment focuses on a mixture of short and long term psychotherapy and the use of medication.

When it comes to your sister’s reluctance to discuss PTSD with you, know that you are not alone. Some people associate a diagnosis of PTSD with being weak or damaged. Others fear that instead of helping, treatment may make the trauma worse. Veterans who are not ready to seek professional help may be willing to explore peer support. One helpful resource, which is part of the Department of Defense and offers free and confidential advice to veterans and their families, is Military Onesource. You can find the group at

Send your questions to [email protected], or write to: Ask the Doctors, c / o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095.


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