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How does war experience affect cognitive decline?

June 20, 2014

As part of June's Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month, the Alzheimer's Association released a special issue of Alzheimer's and Dementia: Journal of the Alzheimer's Association that focuses on the prevalence of cognitive decline among veterans. As the senior citizen population is growing, so is the number of men and women returning from war. The result of this simultaneous influx is the expectation that over time, memory care communities will have more residents who are also veterans. 

What is being researched?
Because of the worldwide effort to find a viable treatment for dementia, the Alzheimer's Association used this month of awareness to gather all of the research related to dementia and Alzheimer's disease associated with military and combat. The organization compiled 15 articles total, including new research. Topics covered in the special issue include stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, prisoner-of-war status, depression and dementia, lifestyle risks, chemical exposure, and head injuries. There are also pieces on the new National PTSD Brain Bank, the economic burden of Alzheimer's for veterans, how disturbed sleep affects dementia, assessing and monitoring dementia diagnoses, and the inclusion of Vietnam War veterans for the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative.

The United States Army Medical Research and Materiel Command funded the special issue. Research on the effects of war on dementia has become more necessary as the recent wars in the Middle East have increased the number of military personnel returning home. Additionally, new technology has resulted in more intense explosive devices that may have more of an impact on soldiers than weapons of the past. There is also concern surrounding the chemicals that veterans encounter, including petroleum products and pesticides. Potential lifestyle risks include tobacco and alcohol use as well as obesity. Researchers are also interested in learning how separate health issues such as depression, diabetes and insufficient sleep quality affect cognitive decline.

What is the overall impact for Americans?
According to the Alzheimer's Association, there are currently over 5 million Americans living with the illness. Last year, caregivers provided more than $220 billion of unpaid care, roughly 17.7 billion hours. Approximately 15.5 million caregivers are looking after loved ones with dementia nationwide.

Though this report looks specifically at issues affecting veterans, many of the afflictions bear weight on civilians as well. For example, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder can happen following other injury-inducing situations such as car accidents. Additionally, anyone with a lifestyle involving alcohol, tobacco or obesity can benefit from research on the risks the behaviors pose to the development of dementia.