Geisinger study: PTSD causes early death from heart disease

July 07, 2008

DANVILLE, PA - Vietnam veterans who experienced posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were twice as likely to die from heart disease as veterans without PTSD, a new Geisinger study finds.

In a study published in the July issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, Geisinger Senior Investigator Joseph Boscarino, PhD, MPH examined the prevalence of heart disease, PTSD and other problems in more than 4,000 Vietnam veterans.

The more severe the PTSD diagnosis, the greater the likelihood of death from heart disease, the study showed.

Vietnam veterans with PTSD--like chronic smokers--are at higher risk of early death from heart disease, Dr. Boscarino concluded. Boscarino equated PTSD to smoking two to three packs of cigarettes per day for more than 20 years.

PTSD causes the body to release stress hormones, which leads to the inflammation and damage to the arteries and cardiovascular system damage. Stress hormones also tend to reduce the amount of inflammation-reducing cortisol in the body--though researchers aren't sure why.

"Increased levels of stress hormones and less cortisol from PTSD are a bad combination," Dr. Boscarino explained. "Basically, PTSD just cooks your arteries in this situation."

Dr. Boscarino previously found that people with PTSD had dramatically higher rates of chronic health problems such as psoriasis, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.

"The science is conclusively showing that if you suffer psychological trauma, it's going to take a toll on your physical health," Dr. Boscarino said. "Getting counseling today is critical to avoiding a related problem tomorrow."

This study excluded patients with a prior history of heart disease and included a national sample of veterans, which is different from prior studies on the topic, Boscarino said.
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Geisinger Health System

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