PTSD and Dementia

When I was a child, I couldn’t wait to become twenty-one.  I knew that, at that age, I could legally drink, drive at night, vote, and make my own decisions, whether my parents approved or not.  I planned to leave home, live according to my own values, and build a happy, productive life. My troubles would be over!

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. If you get a bad start in life (and I think we can all agree that being born into a cult is a bad way to start), the effects are life-long. You can learn to manage these after-effects so they don’t ruin your whole life but they will not go away, no matter how hard you work to counteract them. That’s the hand you were dealt and you are stuck with it: you can play your cards skillfully or poorly, but there’s no getting new cards.

And when I say life-long, I mean life-long. It seems that PTSD almost doubles the risk of getting dementia in later years.  And how many cult kids grow up without PTSD? Not a whole lot. I’m glad I didn’t know this when I was twenty-one!

I learned this happy news from an article by Kristine Yaffe et al. titled “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Risk of Dementia Among US Veterans” published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, 2010; 67 (6): 608-613. It says that 181,093 veterans 55 and older were followed for seven years.  53,155 had PTSD and 127,938 did not. Those with PTSD had a 10.6% risk of developing dementia while those without PTSD had a 6.6% risk. That’s a big difference.

Nobody is likely to recruit 181,093 RA survivors and replicate the study, but common sense says that if PTSD is correlated with dementia in one group, it probably will be in another group. Why should we be any different?

Correlation, of course, does not automatically mean causation. Let’s say that high levels of the blood factor X causes both PTSD and dementia. If you have a lot of factor X you react to a horrible, life-threatening event by developing PTSD.  And, later in life, factor X causes dementia. This study, therefore, is only suggestive and calls for more research.

The authors explain: “There are several reasons why patients with PTSD may have an increased risk of developing dementia. PTSD may contribute to the cause of dementia, or chronic stress may link the two conditions. Stress may damage the hippocampus, a brain area critical for memory and learning, or cause alterations in neurotransmitter and hormone levels that could precipitate dementia.”

In any event, here is another long-term effect of extreme chronic stress in childhood. After struggling with difficulty with trust and forming relationships, with low self-confidence, with amnesia and dissociation, with addictions, with higher risk of autoimmune disease, etc. etc., we are rewarded in our golden years with an increased risk of dementia. Lovely.


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