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Tuesday, 9 November, 1999, 08:28 GMT
Post traumatic stress linked to heart disease
Nearly a third of Vietnam veterans were psychologically scarred
A major study of Vietnam veterans has found those who plagued by anxiety attacks or depression as a result of their experiences are also far more likely to suffer from heart problems.

The results of the US study suggest post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may actually cause or greatly accelerate the condition.

While the link between extreme stress and heart disease has been demonstrated in animal studies, it has so far been more difficult to prove in humans.

The 4,462 men studied had all seen combat during the Vietnam war, according to the paper published in the US Annals of Behavioural Medicine.

Stressed veterans more ill

The researchers found 15% of the entire sample had some form of coronary heart disease when checked with an electrocardiogram (ECG) machine.

But abnormal ECG results were found in 28% of the veterans with PTSD, 24% of the veterans with anxiety only, and 22% with depression only.

It is more likely combat veterans with PTSD or another psychological disorder might expose themselves to heart disease risk by drinking and smoking more, and taking drugs, as well as generally neglecting their health in other ways.

But the study results held true even after researchers had taken this into account.

Dr Joseph Boscarino, from the department of outcomes research in Kentucky, who led the investigation, said: "We believe that this research suggests a clear, definitive linkage between exposure to severe stress and the onset of coronary heart disease in humans."

He added: "For these men, combat exposure years ago in Vietnam was the principal reason for PTSD, anxiety and depression, but we believe that the results would be similar when looking at the consequences of severe distress among other groups of people and within other occupations."

Approximately 30% of veterans of the Vietnam conflict are thought to have developed PTSD as a result.

Disorder has physical effects

A British expert in the disorder, Dr Stuart Turner, from the Traumatic Stress Clinic in London, said the results were "plausible".

He said: "Post traumatic stress disorder is associated with some physical effects on the body's metabolism.

"However, a lot more work needs to be done before it can be proven."

A British study published this week found more than half of UK World War II veterans suffer psychological trauma related to their experiences.

In some, interviewed by Dr Nigel Hunt of Nottingham Trent University, the symptoms are worsening in retirement.

He found 36% of 709 veterans fulfilled criteria suggesting they would benefit from psychiatric treatment.

See also:

15 Jan 99 | Health
Gulf veterans 'twice as ill'
13 Oct 99 | Medical notes
Post-traumatic stress disorder
13 Oct 99 | Health
Anxiety disorder factfile
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