Study Suggests Link Between PTSD and Dementia

Implications for soldiers returning from Iraq, Afghanistan

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at an increased risk of developing dementia, according to a new study from the Rand Corporation. The increased risk was observed in veterans who served in previous wars.

The study involved more than 10,000 veterans aged 65 and older who had visited a VA Medical Clinic at least twice between 1997 and 1999. Outpatient data was collected until 2008 and found that veterans with PTSD had twice the chance for later being diagnosed with dementia than those without PTSD, according to senior author Mark Kunik, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Texas.

Those figures could mean critical implications for soldiers returning from duties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It will be important to determine which Veterans with PTSD are at greatest risk and to determine whether PTSD induced by situations other than war injury is also associated with greater risk,” said Salah Qureshi, MD, psychiatrist and investigator with the Houston VA Center for Excellence.

“PTSD is an extreme form of anxiety disorder that results from the individual having experienced physical, emotional, or psychological trauma,” said dailyRX staff physician, Joseph V. Madia, MD. “The consistent re-experiencing of the event and the resulting anxiety create a significant social, occupational or personal impediment to normal functioning and daily life.”

Symptoms of PTSD include socially avoidant behavior, nightmares, mood disorders, trouble concentrating, flashbacks and sleep difficulties, among others. PTSD’s link with dementia – a loss of brain function that may include difficulty with language, memory, perception, cognitive skills and changes in emotional behavior or personality – may lie in the area of the brain that both PTSD and dementia affect: the hippocampus, where memories are stored.

Qureshi said so far there is no evidence PTSD causes dementia, but said further studies might indicate a direct link.  

The effects of PTSD are long-lasting. A recent study conducted by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health indicated the prevalence of PTSD remains high in Liberia nearly two decades after the principal conflict there ended and almost five years after the war ended entirely.

Madia said PTSD can be effectively treated with anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications in addition to behavioral therapy and psychotherapy. New insights suggest MDMA (also known as street drug Ecstacy) may provide hope for treatment-resistant patients.

Soldiers aren’t the only sufferers of PTSD.  Among civilians in their 50s, women are more likely to develop the disorder, for example, and New York City adolescents and their mothers had elevated rates of PTSD and depression a year following the events of 9/11, according to recent studies. 

Review Date: 
September 22, 2010