SLU Researcher Receives NIH Grant to Study Effects of PTSD on Cardiovascular Health
Why are young veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being
diagnosed with cardiovascular and metabolic disorders at rates much higher than veterans
with no identified psychiatric disorders? Could treating PTSD reduce the risk of these
poor health outcomes?
A Saint Louis University researcher has received a grant to study the effects of treating
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on cardiovascular and metabolic health. Jeffrey
Scherrer, Ph.D., associate professor in Family and Community Medicine, received $2,348,320 from
the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health
Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans with PTSD have an approximate
two-fold increase in hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes and Ischemic heart disease,
Scherrer said. Controlling for depression, anxiety and cardiac risk, women with five
or more PTSD symptoms in a 14-year prospective study were more than three times as
likely to develop coronary heart disease compared to a non-PTSD control group.
Many veterans with PTSD exhibit the unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, including a lack
of physical activity, poor nutrition, smoking, drug use and excessive drinking. Some
of these habits may be used to cope with trauma and high levels of stress. Long term,
these poor health behaviors may account for the greater risk of cardiovascular and
metabolic disease in patients with PTSD.
Scherrer’s study will seek to determine if patients who have been successfully treated
for PTSD are more likely to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
“If what our pilot data suggests is true and reductions in PTSD symptoms are associated
with improved health behaviors then physicians and therapists can work during the
start of PTSD treatment to encourage patients to engage in changing their health behavior,”
Scherrer said. “If symptom reduction isn’t related to healthier life choices, it lends
support for aggressive health promotion and screening of patients with PTSD treatment.”
If the research finds that a diagnosis of PTSD remains a risk factor for cardiovascular
and metabolic disease despite improved health behaviors and symptom reduction, then
lifelong aggressive monitoring of these patients is warranted, Scherrer said.
The study will use Veterans Health Administration medical record data from patients
between the ages of 18 and 70, the majority of whom will have served in the Iraqi
and Afghani conflicts.
The study has two components. An independent company will do medical chart abstraction
to gain data from Veterans Administration patients being treated for PTSD in clinics
that provide cognitive processing therapy or prolonged exposure therapy.
“Medical records lack precision to fully address the question,” Scherrer said. “This
is why detailed data from PTSD treatment encounters will be abstracted, then merged
with the larger number of variables contained in the VA’s national patient data.”
In the first year of funding, the researchers will collect the medical record data.
Analysis will begin in the second year of the study.
Scherrer notes that combat-related activities are not the only reason veterans may
suffer from PTSD.
“Trauma for these veterans is not always related to their military service,” Scherrer
said. “We could be looking at cases of life-threatening experiences like automobile
accidents or childhood trauma. The results from our study should be generalized to
other traumas and PTSD experienced in the civilian population.”
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and
Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under award number 1 R01
Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction
of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates
physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health
care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new
cures and treatments in five key areas: cancer, liver disease, heart/lung disease,
aging and brain disease, and infectious diseases.