July 12, 2019
2 min read

Combat exposure affects veterans’ mental health in later life

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Among combat-exposed male veterans, trajectories for depression and anxiety decreased until age 60 years before increasing in later life, according to study results.

These findings, published in Psychology and Aging, suggest that combat exposure is a hidden variable for mental health in the aging population, according to the researchers.

“Veterans are a great population for studying different patterns of aging. On the one hand, they are group selected for good health, and have received benefits in healthcare, housing and education, so they often age better than civilians. However, combat veterans are often plagued with long-term health sequellae, so their aging is often (but not necessarily) impaired,” Carolyn M. Aldwin, PhD, Jo Anne Leonard Endowed Director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University, told Healio Psychiatry. "Thus, long-term studies allow us to examine the factors that contribute to healthy and impaired aging."

Researchers evaluated whether combat exposure impacted the trajectories of mental health symptoms in 1,105 older male veterans using longitudinal data from the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study (age ranged 40 to 86 years in 1985). They examined mental health symptoms from surveys taken in 1985, 1988 and 1991 as well as participants’ self-rated health and stressful life events.

Aldwin and colleagues presented the average trajectories for the whole sample and separately for both noncombat (59%) and combat veterans (41%).

They found that the average trajectories for depressive and anxiety symptoms were “relatively flat U-shaped curves,” and symptoms declined until participants were in their mid-60s, then increasedin later life; however, the trajectories for combat veterans exhibited “a more exaggerated U-shaped curve with age.”

This means that veterans with combat experience had higher levels of mental health symptoms in midlife that decreased until their mid-60s then increased in later life (quadratic change in depressive symptoms: B = 0.01, P < .001; change in anxiety symptoms: B = 0.006, P = .001) compared with noncombat veterans who had relatively flat trajectories that did not change much with age, according to the study.

“Our results demonstrate that increases in depressive and anxiety symptoms in later life may be due to combat exposure,” Aldwin and colleagues wrote in the full study. “Thus, service providers should be alert to this possible vulnerability among combat veterans. However, the fact that subsequent cohorts have fewer veterans, and even fewer who have seen combat, suggest that we may see better mental health in later life in future generations.” – by Savannah Demko

Disclosure: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.