Are America’s war vets ageing prematurely? Alarming study reveals how a young traumatized U.S. soldier can suffer same brain deterioration as a 70-year-old

By Beth Stebner

PUBLISHED:12:50 EST, 6  September 2012| UPDATED:15:33 EST, 6 September 2012

American soldiers who return from wars abroad  in Iraq and Afghanistan have a host of difficulties in front of them once they  hang up their weapons and put their uniforms in the storage  chest.

But for many veterans, the horrors of war are  haunting, and effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are utterly  debilitating, and may cause them to age prematurely.

Researchers are seeing alarming patterns in young veterans’ health, with many otherwise healthy young men developing early-onset diabetes, heart disease, and slow metabolism leading to obesity.

Shell shock: A U.S. Army Private takes cover during a  controlled detonation to clear an area for setting up a check point Kandahar;  scientists now claim that PTSD is causing vets to age more quickly

Flashbacks: Traumatic events, combined with adrenaline,  make it easy for the brain to go back to the worst moments experienced by a  soldier

In a ground-breaking consortium led by  researchers from Boston University’s School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School  and the Veterans Affairs office in Boston’s Jamaica Plain, data shows that about  30 per cent of veterans studied demonstrate these symptoms.

Those with apparent PTSD even have signs of  loss of grey matter in the brain, which USA  Today  notes should not happen until old  age.

According to the Pentagon, the number of  soldiers with PTSD or brain injury has increased exponentially in recent years.

The government organisation says that since  2000, more than 240,000 soldiers have reported traumatic brain  injury.

Many who have returned from warfare  experience vivid flashbacks to horrific moments in combat – the sound of  gunfire, explosions, and carnage.

In the study, fronted by Draper Laboratory,  the consortium of PTSD experts will look at gene data and psychophysiology to  evaluate the disorder, as well as using MRIs to map out images of the  brain.

A sample of 2,953 American civilians and 345  military veterans was collected.

Troubling signs: Researchers in Boston have been  studying more than 340 veterans to further investigate physical factors of PTSD,  including heart disease and obesity

Collaboration: Scientists and doctors are looking at the  negative effects of PTSD on the brain

In many cases, MRI images of veterans aged  20-30 showed deteriorated brain matter likened to that of a  70-year-old.

Ann Rasmusson, a psychiatrist and  neurobiologist, told USA Today that traumatic stress, when left untreated, can  cause the brain to become fixated on those moments and go back to them too  easily.

As a response to the relentless stress, the  body simply ages faster, the researchers hypothesize.

‘No  one tells you how to shut it off. I spent a lot of time dealing with my  demons.’

-Veteran Ed  Fox

Ed Fox, a 31-year-old veteran of the National  Guard, witnessed nightly attacks during his tour to Iraq in  2004-2005.

He told USA Today that he has constant  flashbacks of mortar attacks and visions of dead bodies, adding that it was  difficult to make stop. ‘No one tells you how to shut it off,’ he said.  ‘I  spent a lot of time dealing with my demons.’

Dr William Milberg, a professor of Psychiatry  at Harvard who is the co-director of the Translation Research Center for  Traumatic Brain Injury and Stress Disorders (TRACTS) study based at the VA  Boston Healthcare System, told MailOnline in an email that the brains of 150  veterans showed significant signs of stress.

He wrote: ‘The red areas are places where  there are statistically consistent correlation’s for a sample of over 150  participants in our study.  You are looking at the maps on two different  sides of the brain.

‘Another way of thinking of this is that the  figure shows that in the places that are red and yellow the higher the degree of  stress the thinner the top layer of cerebral cortex.’

The statistical map shows that key areas of  the 150 veterans’ brains were similarly effected by trauma.

Preliminary data: This is a composite of 150 veterans  measuring areas of the brain effected by PTSD; in the places that are red and  yellow the higher the degree of stress the thinner the top layer of cerebral  cortex

On the rise: Traumatic brain injury, including PTSD, has  risen alarmingly since 2005

More than eight per cent of the  population  will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives, according to Boston  University’s School of Medicine.

In addition to military fighters, civilians  who have been exposed to traumatic events – such as car accidents – are prone to  suffer from the condition.

When left untreated, PTSD can lead to panic  attacks, depression, substance abuse, weight gain, and heart  disease.

According to Draper Laboratory, more than  half of those with the disorder are not properly diagnosed. This consortium  hopes to find concrete chemical evidence to better diagnose and treat the  disorder.

‘Although some biological characteristics  that point to a PTSD diagnosis have already been identified, more comprehensive  study is critical to examine the integrated roles of multiple potential  biological factors of the condition,’Dr Roger Pitman, the director of the PTSD  Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of  Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.

‘This will help clinicians develop  personalized treatment plans to improve outcomes, rather than relying on  one-size-fits-all approaches.

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