We all know how war kills you with a bang. We’re now beginning to understand how it kills you with a whisper. PTSD is one way. But researchers from the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also have found that combat veterans from World War II were more likely to experience physical decline and death during the first 15 years after the war than those not involved in combat.

“War is such an incredibly disruptive event,” says study author Glen H. Elder Jr., Ph.D., of the Carolina Population Center, “especially when you’re mobilized during your late twenties and early thirties like many soldiers were during World War II. This disruption, combined with returning and never really talking about the experience, seems to have had adverse consequences for their physical health, perhaps through an impaired immune function. In our studies, late mobilization and exposure to combat are predictive of declining physical health. There is more cancer and heart disease in the lives of these men.”

Sixteen of those veterans had complained of symptoms of PTSD. And the rates of disease and death were significantly lower among veterans who had not seen much combat.

Because Vietnam occurred earlier in the soldiers’ lives, Dr. Elder isn’t able to draw parallels between World War II veterans and those who served in Vietnam. “The disruption occurred when they were younger, but the war had psychological consequences all of its own,” he says.


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