Mental Function Deteriorates in Female Veterans With PTSD

Posted on November 5th, 2015

Mental Function Deteriorates in Female Veterans With PTSD Veteran servicewomen affected by PTSD experience notable declines in several key areas of higher-level mental function, according to new findings from a group of U.S. researchers.

For a number of reasons, women who serve in the military have increased chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while still on active duty or after they retire from service. In a study published in April 2015 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers from five U.S. institutions compared the higher-level mental functions of veteran servicewomen affected by PTSD to their same-gender counterparts unaffected by the disorder. The researchers concluded that PTSD in a woman who served in the military is associated with below-average levels of several common indicators for higher-level mental ability.

Women, Military Service and PTSD

Most people don’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of exposure to highly stressful situations that produce a risk of serious injury or death. However, several segments of the general population are known to have increased PTSD rates in the aftermath of such situations. These population groups include women (who develop the disorder more than twice as often as men), people exposed to combat zones or actual combat, and people who survive a rape or any other form of sexual assault. Women who serve in the military also have a relatively high chance of being exposed to combat situations and/or experiencing a sexual assault. Essentially, this means that women in the military have generally increased PTSD risks.

The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in women who served in Afghanistan or Iraq is roughly 20 percent, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. Women who served in Vietnam have an even higher lifetime PTSD rate of approximately 27 percent. In addition to the stresses associated with combat operations and sexual assault, servicewomen often experience substantial stress associated with leaving behind people for whom they normally have primary care responsibilities, including young children and aging parents.

Higher-Level Mental Function

Higher-level mental function is also known as neurocognitive function or neurocognitive performance. Researchers, psychologists and psychiatrists use all of these terms to refer to core abilities and mental processes that largely distinguish human beings from other species. Examples of specific higher-level functions include the ability to use and understand language, the ability to think logically, the ability to use past events to cope appropriately with current and future situations, the ability to maintain control over impulsive behavior, the ability to control strong emotions, the ability to make sound judgments and the ability to establish and fulfill long-term plans. Many of these abilities fall under a single heading known as executive function. Executive function develops gradually throughout childhood and adolescence before reaching its fully developed state by the time a person reaches his or her mid-20s.

Higher-Level Function in Servicewomen With PTSD

In the study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers from the VA Boston Healthcare System, the Boston University School of Medicine, the Biomedical Research Institute of New Mexico, the New Mexico VA Healthcare System and the University of New Mexico School of Medicine used information gathered from 109 veteran servicewomen to help determine the impact that PTSD has on the higher-level mental function of female veterans. Fifty-six of the project participants were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder; the remaining participants had no PTSD history. The researchers compared the psychiatric health of the two groups, as well as the ability to fully use a range of advanced mental skills.

The researchers preliminarily concluded that the servicewomen affected by PTSD had significantly lower average IQ (intelligence quotient) scores than their counterparts unaffected by PTSD. They also concluded that the servicewomen with PTSD had a nearly global decline in higher-level mental skills when compared to their counterparts without the disorder. The decline in higher-level skills persisted even when direct comparisons were made between affected and unaffected women with the same IQ scores.

The researchers found that a decline in executive function is largely responsible for the decreased mental skills in servicewomen with PTSD. This fact holds true even when other clearly relevant considerations—including the severity of PTSD symptoms and the related presence of depression symptoms—are taken into account. The study’s authors note a need for larger-scale and more detailed efforts to explore these issues in the future.

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