The negative effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on the long-term psychological health of veterans are well-documented. Moreover, veterans battling PTSD encounter a variety of other issues such as work and relationship problems.
But can PTSD be bad for your heart? Research shows that it may be.
A recent study published in the highly respected medical journal The Lancet revealed that high levels of stress were associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease. The greater the stress, the more likely a person was to experience chest pain, heart failure or stroke ... and they were more likely to experience these problems earlier than others.
What does this have to do with PTSD? Stress is associated with increased activity in the small, almond-shaped structure in our brain called the amygdala. In addition to regulating memory and our ability to make decisions, the amygdala helps us process our emotions. The more emotionally stressed we are, the more active this tiny "processing system" becomes.
Prior research has also found that the amygdala is hyperactive in people with PTSD. This makes sense, as chronic emotional stress goes hand in hand with the disorder.
Although the direct mechanism for how an overactive amygdala in PTSD sufferers leads to heart disease is unclear, it’s believed to somehow be related to our bone marrow.
Bone marrow is a fatty substance inside our bones that’s responsible for producing red and white blood cells. Red blood cells deliver oxygen to the tissues in our body. White blood cells are responsible for fighting off infections when we get sick.
It’s believed that an overactive amygdala tells our bone marrow to produce more white blood cells. This increase in white blood cell leads to the development of plaque in our arteries. It also causes them to become inflamed or swell. This buildup of plaque and narrowing of the arteries from inflammation can lead to angina (chest pain) and, in extreme cases, a heart attack.
The Lancet study is not the first to document a connection between PTSD and heart disease. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealedthat veterans with PTSD had a 50 percent greater chance of developing heart failure compared with those who didn’t have PTSD. In the same year, an articlepublished in the scientific journal Circulation reported that women with severe PTSD may have a 60 percent higher lifetime risk of heart disease.
As we learn more about the effects of PTSD on the heart, as well as other organs, the view that PTSD is a purely psychiatric disorder may give way to the notion that it’s a systemic disease affecting the whole body.
Effective treatment will not only improve a person’s quality of life, but possibly extend it as well.
Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. He is the co-author of "The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook." This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.