PTSD Increases Risk for Heart Disease

Studies over the last couple of years have shown that those who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also appear to die sooner from heart disease.  In fact, it seems likely that the PTSD worsens coronary artery plaque build-up.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder brought on by either witnessing or being directly involved in a traumatic event. The trauma could be a communal disaster, like Hurricane Sandy, or it may be intensely personal, such as a sexual assault. Soldiers who live through highly stressful combat situations are also at risk for developing PTSD. Now we know that these same people are also at increased risk for developing heart disease.

When a person is under stress, the body releases specific hormones which intensify the body’s ability to deal with danger. When the danger continues or the person is tricked into feeling that the danger persists (as is the case with PTSD), these normally helpful hormones can become health risks. The hormones that your body is producing in order to protect you can lead to abnormally high levels of plaque accumulation in the arteries of the heart. This plaque build-up, referred to as atherosclerosis, restricts blood flow and causes the arteries to harden.

While short-term stress and anxiety are normal short-term reactions to stressful situations, most people find that these symptoms resolve themselves as the danger is left behind. However, for some people, the negative results triggered by trauma do not resolve on their own but instead worsen and deepen with time. This is very much the case for the person with PTSD who continues to live in a state of heightened alertness, who must actively avoid anything that is reminiscent of prior stress, who is troubled by nightmares and flashbacks related to the trauma and who has trouble relating well to others.

Some have estimated that as many as one-quarter of returning combat soldiers will come home facing some sort of physical or mental health problem. Depression and PTSD are among the most common health challenges confronting these soldiers. Studies have recently begun focusing on veterans and the impact of PTSD on their overall health.

One study examined over 600 war veterans, most of whom were males around age 60. The study participants were screened for both PTSD and coronary artery health. Heart imaging revealed that nearly all of the participants had some degree of plaque in the heart’s arteries, but among those with PTSD the rate of atherosclerosis was significantly higher (above 75 percent compared to less than 60 percent). The study continued tracking participants for three to four years and found that mortality rates were nearly double for the PTSD subjects with significant coronary artery disease.

Stress is good in the short term, since it triggers bodily reactions that can save our lives when we are in danger. However, living with high stress for an extended period of time is unhealthy. Returning soldiers with PTSD cannot shake the sense of being imperiled and the body’s response to that state is literally cutting their lives short.