(NaturalNews) The research is preliminary and the results inconclusive, but scientists believe several factors are related to repeated exposure to combat conditions could be causing premature aging among many of our nation's veterans, though some believe the cause could be much more sinister.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and battlefield concussion are common elements of these repeated deployments, say doctors and scientists who have discovered many physical characteristics of aging found in older adults but which are more frequently being discovered in veterans who are in their 20s and 30s.
"Scientists see early signs of heart disease and diabetes, slowed metabolisms and obesity - maladies more common to middle age or later," said USA Today, in reporting the results.
"They should have been in the best shape of their lives," William Milberg, a Harvard Medical School professor of psychology and co-director of the project tracking the veterans' physical changes, told the paper. "The big worry, of course, is we're going to be taking care of them until they're in their 70s. What's going to happen to them in the long run?"
Again, scientists admit the research is in its very earliest stages, but already researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs are rushing to figure it out. What they appear to be seeing are distinct signs of early aging, and if that's the case, they say the signs are occurring most commonly among veterans with both blast-related concussions and PTSD - about 30 percent of all veterans being studied in the long-term research project.
Hundreds of thousands of potential sufferers
Researchers say they are discovering signs of diminished gray matter in higher-functioning portions of the brain, changes that normally occur much later in life, if at all.
The scientists say they are likely to need a few more years of study to prove their anti-aging theory, but add that it's not clear how their findings will impact future policies regarding the number and length of combat deployments. Many veterans have a combination of three, four and even five combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even before reports about the potentially aging effects of repeated deployments were known, the Army seemed to be mindful of the strain of repeated tours of duty. About a year ago, the service branch began cutting deployments to just nine months from a year (initial deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were 15 months for some Army troops), and have lengthened the time between deployments. Some regular Army and Marine Corps units were once being rotated into war zones every 12 months or so; National Guard troops were eligible to be deployed again after 24 months.
Meanwhile, the numbers of troops suffering brain injury and PTSD continue to grow. The Department of Defense said that since 2000, 244,000 service members have suffered traumatic brain injuries which ranged from mild to severe, both in and out of combat. Since the 9/11 attacks, the VA says it has treated about the same number of war veterans for PTSD.
"We're looking at people who are going to be having cognitive problems much earlier than they should be having them," said Regina McGlinchey, a neuropsychologist and project co-director.
There is other anecdotal evidence that premature aging may be occurring among some veterans.
A study released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that veterans aged 25 to 64 experienced more than twice the rate of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer than non-veterans.
Milberg said people researchers are seeing in Boston "really have a lot of things going on at the same time. It's hard to know where one problem ends and another starts."
He went onto say that other scientists say the early aging may stem from the nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; troops have served long and repeated deployments to both conflicts, and at an unprecedented rate. While there, they live under a high state of vigilance, manage a much higher-than-normal level of stress for many months or even more than a year - then have had to do it all over again perhaps only a year later.
But some veterans believe there could be a much more sinister reason behind the physical disabilities.
"Take a deeper look down the 'rabbit hole'" said one Facebook poster to the original USA Today article. "I am a disabled vet myself. All the stuff they shot into us, the chemicals. We're walking guinea pigs for every pharma/bioweapon coming down the pike. These 'wars' are unnecessary."