PTSD can cause severe psychic distress, but it may also raise heart risks for female veterans in particular, a new study suggests.
"The association we found was incredibly strong," said lead author Dr. Ramin Ebrahimi, a cardiologist affiliated with the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
"We have a rising number of women veterans, and a large proportion of them -- nearly 1 in 5 -- have PTSD," Ebrahimi said in an American College of Cardiology news release. "These women are at high risk for heart disease, and what's more, they appear to be getting it at a younger age -- even in their 40s. This is not something we can ignore."
Researchers analyzed U.S. Veterans Affairs data on more than 835,000 female veterans who visited any VA facility at least twice between 2000 and 2017.
On average, patients were just over 50 years old at the end of the study period. More than 150,000 (about 18%) had been diagnosed with PTSD. Overall, those with PTSD had a 20% higher risk of heart disease than those without PTSD.
Ischemic heart disease is a leading cause of death in the United States and includes heart attacks, chest pain and other problems caused by clogged or hardened arteries in the heart or abnormalities in smaller blood vessels.
The study is to be presented at an American College of Cardiology/World Congress of Cardiology online meeting, being held March 28-30. Such research is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
It's not clear why PTSD might affect heart health, but a number of possibilities have been suggested. They include elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, inflammation, blood-clotting disorders, endocrine disorders such as thyroid and adrenal and other disorders that may affect blood pressure, heart rate or other metabolic factors, Ebrahimi said.
Previous studies, mostly involving men, have resulting in mixed findings on the link between PTSD and heart disease.
Ebrahimi and his team plan to investigate how PTSD might contribute to heart disease. Further research could also determine if the link between PTSD and heart disease is also found in women who haven't served in the military.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on PTSD.