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Study links PTSD to higher risk of heart disease in women
1/2/2009 - Christine Traxler

Women with a high level of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms had a greater risk of developing heart disease than women with no PTSD symptoms, a study by Harvard and Johns Hopkins researchers concludes.

In previous research, by theHarvard School of Public Health and her colleagues had found a significant link between PTSD and heart disease in men who had been in the military, but this is the first study to look at the two illnesses in civilian women.

While combat-related PTSD is well-known in men, women are actually twice as likely as men to develop PTSD, researchers say, citing other studies. To explore PTSD among women in a community, they analyzed data from more than a thousand Baltimore women participating in the Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, a national survey of psychiatric disorders in the general population.

The women, who were an average of 44 years old at the start of the study, were asked about exposure to a traumatic event in the past year and whether they had symptoms of PTSD. They were followed for 14 years to see if they developed coronary heart disease.

Women who had five or more symptoms of PTSD were three time more likely to have heart disease than women without PTSD symptoms, the results showed.

"Findings from this study suggest that damaging effects of PTSD symptoms are not limited to military men, but are also evident among civilian women," the authors write. "From a public health standpoint, it may be prudent to view individuals with PTSD as an at-risk population, and implement preventive and intervention strategies accordingly."

Outside the combat arena, PTSD can follow sexual and physical assault, serious accidents and injuries, and natural disasters. Its symptoms fall into three categories: reexperiencing the traumatic event, emotional numbing and avoidance of traumatic reminders, and hyper-arousal, or a heightened state of tension. Some scientists theorize that prolonged stress reactions lead to wear and tear on the body that in turn set the stage for disease.

Depression and anxiety have also been implicated in heart disease. PTSD has also been tied to smoking and heavy drinking, which also increase the risk of heart disease.

PTSD deserves attention both to prevent the psychiatric disorder and to avoid any medical problems that might ensue.

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