Study links post-traumatic stress to heart disease

CHICAGO Tue Jan 2, 2007 8:21am EST

British soldiers secure the scene of a bomb attack that targeted their patrol south of Basra, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad, December 29, 2006. A study of military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder found the more severe their anxiety, the greater their risk of heart disease, researchers said on Monday. REUTERS/Atef Hassan

British soldiers secure the scene of a bomb attack that targeted their patrol south of Basra, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad, December 29, 2006. A study of military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder found the more severe their anxiety, the greater their risk of heart disease, researchers said on Monday.

Credit: Reuters/Atef Hassan

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - A study of military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder found the more severe their anxiety, the greater their risk of heart disease, researchers said on Monday.

The link between stress and heart disease has long been recognized, and researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston found that relationship existed among nearly 2,000 Boston-area veterans.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, once dismissed as "combat fatigue," can also afflict people who experience traumatic events. It is characterized by anxiety, reexperiences of the event and avoidance of stimuli related to the experience.

Based on commonly-used measures of stress disorder symptoms used in the Harvard study, each step up in symptom severity increased the risk of a heart attack by 26 percent, the report said.

"This pattern of effects suggests that individuals with higher levels of (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms are not simply prone to reporting higher levels of chest pain or other physical symptoms but may well be at higher risk for developing coronary heart disease," wrote study author Laura Kubzansky in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

An unrelated study in the same journal from the Netherlands found veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder were less sensitive to pain than counterparts without the disorder.

Twenty-four Dutch veterans were subjected to variable temperatures on their hands by researchers at Central Military Hospital and the Rudolph Magnus Institute of Neuroscience, Utrecht, led by Elbert Geuze. The 12 who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder rated the pain "significantly" less severe than those without the disorder.

Images taken of the veterans' brains during the temperature experiment showed those with the disorder processed the pain differently in regions of the brain associated with mood and cognition.

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