PTSD in Vietnam War Veterans Reveals Lifelong Impact of Combat Service

AMERICAN veterans of the Vietnam War continue to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health illnesses despite the conflict ending 40 years ago. New research from the NYU Langone Medical Center, New York City, New York, USA, estimates that there are 271,000 Vietnam War veterans currently living with full PTSD, about one-third of whom also have current major depressive disorder.

The National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study built upon the results of the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) that ran between 1984 and 1988, with 78.8% of the 1,839 veterans from the NVVRS participating in at least one phase of the new study, which ran between July 2012 and May 2013. The findings allowed the authors to estimate that 15-17% of Vietnam War veterans have had PTSD at some point in their lifetime, with the prevalence of a current PTSD diagnosis in male veterans depending on the diagnostic criteria applied: 4.5% according to the clinician-administered PTSD scale for the fifth edition of the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM-5); 10.8% according to DSM-5 plus subthreshold PTSD (those meeting some diagnostic criteria); and 11.2% according to the PTSD checklist for DSM-5 items for current war-zone PTSD.

Estimations of the prevalence of current PTSD in female veterans according to the same three sets of criteria were: 6.1%, 8.7%, and 6.6%, respectively. The study authors also reported that approximately 16% of war-zone Vietnam veterans exhibited a rise of >20 points on a PTSD symptom scale, whereas only 7.6% displayed a fall of the same magnitude on this scale, which led the study authors to conclude: “An important minority of Vietnam veterans are symptomatic after 4 decades, with more than twice as many deteriorating as improving.”

Dr Charles Hoge, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA, commented on the study’s findings: “This methodologically superb follow-up of the original NVVRS cohort offers a unique window into the psychiatric health of these veterans 40 years after the war’s end. No other study has achieved this quality of longitudinal information, and the sobering findings tell us as much about the Vietnam generation as about the lifelong impact of combat service in general, relevant to all generations.”

“The study is of vital importance to subsequent generations of war veterans and underscores medical service needs for PTSD and related comorbidities extending decades after service.”

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