Studies of Veterans and Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 600,000 people die every year from heart disease and related conditions, representing one in four deaths. It is the leading cause of death among both men and women.

The CDC offers more numbers: Of the 600,000 deaths, coronary artery disease kills the largest number of people, 380, 000. Around 720,000 people have a heart attack every year; 205,000 of these are second or third occurrences. More people in the southern states are affected by heart disease than in the North and West. African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics are more likely to have heart disease than white Americans.

Some Groups of Vets Are More Likely to Experience Heart Disease

One number the CDC does not provide is how veterans are affected by heart disease. Like the general population, veterans die most frequently from ischemic heart disease, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Even though veterans tend to have better health care and health insurance available to them through the VA health care system, some groups of veterans are likely to experience heart disease more frequently and more severely than their fellow vets and civilians.

One such group is combat veterans of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. These men were shown in a 2005 study to have more risk factors for heart disease than both noncombat veterans of the same wars and the general population. These vets were more likely to be heavy drinkers and smokers and more likely to be obese - all factors in the development of heart disease.

Other veterans with a greater than average likelihood of developing heart disease are Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during service. A study released in 2009 noted that there may be a connection between exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the Vietnam War and the development of ischemic heart disease. As a consequence of the study, which was conducted by the Institute of Medicine, the VA recognizes ischemic heart disease among veterans exposed to Agent Orange as a presumptive condition, meaning that vets do not need to prove a link between the illness and their military service to receive VA disability and health benefits.

A more recent study found that Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are twice as likely to develop heart disease. Funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and published in 2013, the study compared 234 Vietnam-era twins, only one of whom had PTSD. Researchers found that the twin with PTSD was almost two times more likely to develop heart disease than the twin without PTSD.

Studies That Use Veterans' Data to Answer Questions About the General Population

Some studies are not about veterans per se, but use the data collected about them by the VA to answer research questions. For example, research presented at a 2014 conference on retroviruses and opportunistic infection found that vets with HIV or depression had an increased risk of developing heart disease, and those with both HIV and infection had a significantly greater probability - 68 percent higher - of experiencing heart disease.

Interpreting these findings was the subject of much discussion at the conference, held in Boston in March 2014. Was the increased risk of heart disease the result of better diagnoses, as most people with HIV use medical services more frequently? Do antidepressants play a role? Time and more research will tell whether the veterans followed by the study are different from or similar to the general population.

Woman Veterans Not Exempt

Female vets were not included in the studies described above, primarily because until recently, there were relatively few female vets compared with male veterans. However, that appears to be changing. For example, the Chicago VA and the Loyola School of Nursing have begun a project to study the benefits of stress reduction techniques in female veterans who have two risk factors for heart disease. These factors include smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and a family history of heart attack or stroke.

Most of these studies lasted for a long time, following the veterans for many years. Heart disease does not occur overnight, but develops gradually in response to many environmental and genetic factors. Things like diet and exercise can either slow or speed up the advance of heart disease resulting from family history or environmental exposure. The Department of Veterans Affairs is heavily involved in the research that identifies people most likely to get heart disease and in promoting efforts to reduce the likelihood that veterans will develop it as they age.