BOSTON (USA Today) – A litany of physical or emotional problems spill out as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans make their way, one by one, to the 11th floor of a VA hospital in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
The tragic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or battlefield concussion are all too evident. Even more alarming for researchers is emerging evidence that these newest American combat veterans – former GIs and Marines in their 20s and 30s – appear to be growing old before their time. Scientists see early signs of heart disease and diabetes, slowed metabolisms and obesity – maladies more common to middle age or later.
“They should have been in the best shape of their lives,” says William Milberg, a Harvard Medical School professor of psychology and project co-director. “The big worry, of course, is we’re going to be taking care of them until they’re in their 70s. What’s going to happen to them in the long run?”
The research is in its early stages, and scientists with the Department of Veterans Affairs are rushing to understand it. If what they’re seeing is a form of early aging, it seems most common to those with both blast-related concussion and PTSD- about 30% of the veterans being studied in a long-term research effort. There is even imaging evidence of diminished gray matter in high-functioning areas of the brain, changes that shouldn’t happen for decades, if at all.
Scientists say their theory may not be proved until they can study these veterans over the next few years, and it remains unclear how these findings might impact policies on the length and number of combat deployments.