Watch for Vascular, Other Risks in PTSD Patients

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MONTREAL -- The physical burden of psychological trauma remains largely un-derrecognized from both a public health and clinical perspective, a panel of experts explained at the meeting. The interplay of mental and physical health should be a central consideration in prevention and treatment programs, they said.

"I think we are just beginning to peel apart the onion" of the extent to which physical illness and mental illness are comorbid, said Dr. Sandro Galea, a physician and epidemiologist affiliated with the school of public health at Columbia University, New York. Mental illness "is a key component in the onset, progression, and severity of a full range of physical illnesses, which, if factored in properly, would illustrate a dramatically greater burden of mental illness than we have currently accepted," he said.

In several ongoing studies across a wide variety of populations, Dr. Galea and his colleagues have documented "an extraordinary relationship" between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and health disorders such as vascular problems, respiratory and lung problems (including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tuberculosis, and emphysema), and other major illnesses such as arthritis, cancer, and diabetes, he reported.

"With few exceptions, it is pretty consistent across the board" that there is a clear association of physical health, functioning, and disability according to the presence or absence of current or life-time PTSD, he said. For example, the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study shows evidence of epigenetic and immune system dysfunction among individuals with depression and/or PTSD, compared with unaffected individuals (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 2010;10720:9470-5).

"As providers, we need to be aware of this association and should think about screening for trauma in many of our patients, particularly those with chronic illness," said Dr. Beth E. Cohen of the University of California, San Francisco, and an internal medicine specialist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. "There's a lot of data showing [that] people do not actually get diagnosed and treated for things like PTSD for years or even decades after they start to experience these symptoms. If we were able to treat people more aggressively up front, perhaps we could prevent a lot of this."

As coinvestigator on the Heart and Soul Study, Dr. …