People who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome - such as war veterans, sexual abuse victims and earthquake survivors among others - will die earlier than the general population because of changes to their physiology, according to new research.
This is the first study of its type to link PTSD, a psychological disorder, with long-term, systemic effects on a basic process such as aging, according to Dilip Jeste, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and senior author of the new study.
"If this findings holds up, it will mean that there is a serious biological disorder which not only affects the mind and brain, but the whole body," Jeste told Discovery News.
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"What is needed is not just psychiatric treatment but a medical-psychiatric integrated approach. We should not just focus on mental symptoms and flashbacks, but make sure [the patient's] physical health is not worsening."
The National Institutes of Health estimates that 7.7 million Americans suffer from PTSD at least once in their life. The Department of Veterans Affairs says about 484,000 veterans have sought treatment for PTSD, including 20 percent of Iraq war vets and 10 percent of those who served in Afghanistan.
Researchers had previously noted a potential association between psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and acceleration of the aging process. Jeste and colleagues sought to learn if PTSD might show a similar association by conducting a comprehensive review of medical studies going back to 2000.
Jeste said his review doesn't prove that PTSD causes early aging, but rather an association between the two.
Early aging can be measured by the shortening of telomeres, which are the ends of chromosomes inside the cell. A shortening of telomeres indicates that cells are dying earlier.
The scientists also found higher levels of certain "biomarkers" or bits of protein that indicate inflammation, such as C-reactive protein and tumor necrosis factor alpha, associated with PTSD, according to the study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
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While there's no cure for PTSD, physicians and psychiatrists believe that some forms of therapy help reduce the symptoms. Jeste says that the good news is that the symptoms of PTSD, like early aging, can be reversed if treated early.
"We believe the possibility that treating PTSD early and appropriately may be able to prevent that cascade of events that could result in progressive biological worsening," he said.
Aoife O'Donovan, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, has studied the connection between the shortening of telomeres and PTSD. She says there may be some behavioral interventions and new drugs that might help.
"This evidence highlights a need for action at the level of both policy and clinical care," O'Donovan said via e-mail.
"Given that trauma exposure has such a strong negative effect on health, developing better interventions and making those interventions available to those most in need is a major public health priority."