The study shows that among male veterans aged 60 and older, those with high levels of PTSD symptoms were more likely to develop heart disease.
The findings appear in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
PTSD can happen to anyone who experiences or witnesses a life-threatening event that causes feelings of intense fear and/or helplessness. Symptoms may include:
- Repeated flashbacks or recurrent dreams of the event
- Hypervigilance—a preoccupation with possible unknown threats
- Frightening or disturbing dreams
- Trouble sleeping
- Outbursts of anger
- Intense distress if exposed to anything resembling the event
- Efforts to avoid people or activities that may arouse recollection of the trauma
- Psychological numbness
- Inability to relate to others
- Chronic physical symptoms such as pain, headaches, or irritable bowel
- In young children: agitated behavior, difficulty concentrating, or developmental regression in such things as toilet training or speech
- Having no sense of a future
PTSD Symptoms Studied
The new PTSD study included more than 1,900 male veterans living in the Boston area.
The researchers included Laura Kubzansky, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health. They split the veterans into two groups.
One group included about 1,000 veterans who took a PTSD survey in 1990, when they were 63 years old, on average.
The other group included 944 veterans who took a different PTSD survey in 1986. They were about 60 years old, on average, at the time.
Fourteen men—nine in one group and five in the other—met the criteria for PTSD diagnosis.
The researchers also tracked PTSD symptoms in men who weren't diagnosed with PTSD. Most had "low to moderate" levels of PTSD symptoms, write Kubzansky and colleagues.
The men got medical checkups every three to five years and were followed for 10-13 years.
During that time, 255 men developed heart disease, which included heart attacks and angina (chest pain).
PTSD Symptoms and Heart Disease
Men with higher levels of PTSD symptoms were more likely to develop heart disease during the study. The link between PTSD symptoms and heart disease was "modest," the researchers write.
Kubzansky's team took other heart hazards—including smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol level, and family history of heart disease—into account.
But they caution that they can't rule out other possible influences. For instance, they didn't have data on the men's exercise habits.
Calling the results "provocative," the researchers write that their data "suggest that prolonged stress and significant levels of PTSD symptoms may increase the risk for [coronary heart disease] in older male veterans."
It's not known if the findings apply to other people with PTSD.
If you suspect you or someone you know has PTSD, talk to your doctor about treatment, which may include psychotherapy and medication. Your doctor can also help you gauge and improve your heart's health.
SOURCES: Kubzansky, L. Archives of General Psychiatry, January 2007; vol 64: pp 109-116. WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding PTSD—The Basics." WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding PTSD—Symptoms." WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding PTSD—Detection & Treatment."
By Miranda Hitti
Reviewed by Louise Chang