Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are likely to have a higher chance of developing heart disease and to die prematurely, US researchers reported in the American Journal of Cardiology. They found that those with PTSD were more likely to have coronary artery disease, an accumulation of plaque in the arteries that lead to the heart.

PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a kind of anxiety that is triggered by a traumatic event. The individual with PTSD might have experienced or witnessed an event that caused extreme shock, fear or a feeling of helplessness. We all, at some time in our lives experience a period of difficulty adjusting and coping with traumatic events, but we eventually get over it. In some cases, however, the symptoms just worsen and may persist for several months, or even years. If the person’s life becomes completely disrupted he/she may have PTSD. Proper and effective treatment can help prevent the PTSD from becoming a chronic (long-term) illness.

Some soldiers returning from Afghanistan or Iraq may have developed PTSD.

Ramin Ebrahimi, MD, from the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center, and team found that among mentally troubled veterans, their coronary artery disease had progressed farther compared to other individuals, making them more likely to die from any cause within 42 months compared to their mentally healthy peers.

The authors say better interventions are required to prevent these diseases from developing.

Reports of vets returning from active service developing depression, avoidant behavior and other mental issues are common, and the military has been under constant pressure to set up a more effective strategy to help those with PTSD.

The NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) estimates that approximately 1 in every 30 US adults develops PTSD every year. The risk for war vets is significantly greater.

The authors say their findings highlight the urgency for a proper system of integrated medical and psychological therapy for vets with PTSD, which can rapidly identify those at risk of heart disease.

The researchers screened 637 vets for signs of coronary artery disease from PTSD. Most of them were male (12.2% female) and their average age was 60 years. 88 of them had the signs and symptoms of PTSD.

Calcium imaging scans of their hearts revealed that most of them had some accumulation of plaque in their arteries. Over three-quarters of the vets with PTSD had coronary atherosclerosis, versus 59% among the other vets.

They were then monitored for three and a half years. By the end of that period 17% of those with PTSD had died, compared to 10% of those without the disorder.

The authors also noted that risk of death was higher for PTSD vets whose plaque build-up was identical to other vets without PTSD.

Further studies are required to confirm that PTSD causes heart disease, the scientists added. However, they insist that their findings suggest that treating the disorder as just a mental one is not enough anymore.

The authors concluded:

” In conclusion, PTSD is associated with presence and severity of coronary atherosclerosis and predicts mortality independent of age, gender, and conventional risk factors.”

Some reports have suggested that about 1 in every 4 US service men and women returning from Iraq or Afghanistan will develop at least one combat-related problem, such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury, an anxiety disorder, or depression. While many do receive proper care and treatment, up to half don’t, partly because of the stigma attached to seeking care. Individuals with PTSD who are untreated have a significantly higher risk of self harm and suicide, experts say.

Most people who are exposed to a traumatic event will experience some of the signs and symptoms listed below. In most cases they gradually taper off. For some, though, they persist and may get worse:

  • A feeling of detachment, estrangement from others
  • A feeling that the event is happening again
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Avoiding situations that remind the person of the event
  • Being over-alert to possible dangers
  • Chest pains
  • Depression
  • Disturbing and frightening thoughts
  • Dizziness, light headedness
  • Drug dependency
  • Feeling mentally and emotionally numbed
  • Flight/fight syndrome
  • General aches and pains
  • Guilt
  • Headaches
  • Higher risk of infection
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Less interest in life in general
  • Mood changes
  • Nightmares
  • Not being able to remember some aspects of the event
  • Not wanting to talk about the event
  • Outbursts of rage or anger
  • Persistent behavioral traits
  • Phobias
  • Problems focusing
  • Relationship breakdowns
  • Stomach problems
  • Sweating and trembling
  • Work problems

“Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Coronary Atherosclerosis, and Mortality”
Naser Ahmadi, MD, MS, Fereshteh Hajsadeghi, MD, Hormoz B. Mirshkarlo, MD, Matthew Budoff, MD, Rachel Yehuda, PhD, Ramin Ebrahimi, MD
“American Journal of Cardiology”. published online 02 May 2011. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2011.02.340

Written by Christian Nordqvist