Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been linked to a variety of psychological difficulties, including insomnia, chronic depression, eating disorders, anger, and substance abuse. Could PTSD also speed the rate at which you grow old? According to researchers at Veterans Affairs and UC San Diego School of Medicine, people with PTSD may be at risk for accelerated aging, also referred to as premature senescence.

Since people naturally age at different rates, how do you understand whether someone is growing old at a faster rate than they should? After all, there’s no standardized definition of what this would mean. To more precisely define early aging, the researchers looked at non-psychiatric conditions that induce early aging phenomena, such as progeria syndrome, HIV, and Down syndrome. What the investigators discovered was three categories of evidence for premature decline: earlier death; a younger age at diagnosis of medical conditions linked to advanced age (such as cancer); and unique biological indicators, such as leukocyte telomere length (or LTL).

Three Measures

Leukocytes, as you may known, are white blood cells. Telomeres, like the plastic caps on shoe laces, are stretches of protective, repetitive nucleotide sequences at the ends of chromosomes. With each and every cell replication, these sequences shorten and so they are considered a strong measure of the aging process in cells.

After deciding on three measures, the researchers searched multiple databases for recent empirical studies relevant to early aging in PTSD. The investigative team identified 64 relevant studies dating back only as far as 2000.

Six of the studies, the science team discovered, showed reduced leukocyte telomere length in people with PTSD, while other studies presented consistent evidence of increased pro-inflammatory markers in people with PTSD. These markers included C-reactive protein and tumor necrosis factor alpha.

A majority of the studies reviewed by the team showed increased comorbidities in the PTSD patients as well as several conditions linked to normal aging, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and dementia.

Finally, seven studies indicated a mild-to-moderate link between PTSD and earlier death.

"How can a single traumatic event unleash a cascade of events that leads to progressively worsening aging of the whole body?" Dr. Dilip V. Jeste, director of the Center on Healthy Aging and Senior Care at UC San Diego and senior author of the study, told Medical Daily. "That is the surprise. Our review suggests that, one, PTSD should be viewed not only as a mental illness, but also as a progressive physical disorder, and, two, its treatment should include not only psychological therapy but also an integrated medical – psychiatric approach."

Source: Lohr JB, Palmer BW, Eidt CA, et al. Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Associated with Premature Senescence? A Review of the Literature. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2015.