Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Speeds Aging in Women, Study Finds

In the 1960s, Adriana’s mom and dad had come to the United States from Mexico. They attained citizenship, and shortly afterward, her father joined the Marines and went to fight in Vietnam. Both her father and older brother were proud career military personnel and it was only a small surprise to the family when Adriana, too, made the decision to join. At 19, Adriana left her family’s home in Houston to report to the Marine Corp Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina, where women are trained to become Marines, and where soldiers go through basic training (the other facility for this training is in San Diego). After she completed basic training, she was sent for further training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Adriana was a focused, dedicated and hardworking soldier with a positive attitude and a strong internal incentive to advance in her military career. She was “a leader-in-the-making” and “a pleasure to be around,” according to several who’d worked beside her. But at Camp Lejeune, her positive experiences with the Marine Corp began to dissolve. It was there that Adriana was first sexually assaulted. Not wanting to frighten her mother, and not being certain herself how to handle the assault, Adriana chose to keep the incident to herself. She decided to move ahead as if nothing had happened, and for a time, this worked. After her training stateside, and a brief visit home, Adriana was deployed to Afghanistan. Initially, she adapted to her position and to her role. She trusted the men serving beside her and they trusted her. One of Adriana’s primary roles was to serve as the first line of communication with Afghani women, a highly necessary duty. The local women were not able, given their religious customs, to speak to men who were not members of their family, so Adriana spoke to the women with the help of a translator. After seven months of serving in severe and frequently life-threatening conditions, Adriana was again assaulted, this time by her platoon sergeant. Feeling that she had no recourse, and experiencing the tremendous stress from both the pressures of combat and the fear of another assault, Adriana began to break down psychologically. She was distracted, jumpy and agitated. She could not seem to quell feelings of intense anxiety. An incredible sense of hopelessness had begun to overtake her and she no longer felt the desire to achieve beyond her role. She had trouble sleeping, sometimes experienced double vision, and she had a noted loss of appetite. Her strength had diminished as a result of significant weight loss. Adriana feared disappointing her comrades and her family, but she knew that what was happening to her likely made her a risk to the men who served beside her. She needed to talk to someone. PTSD in Women According to the Pentagon’s most recent research, 19,000 sex crimes take place in the military each year. While Adriana’s is an extreme story—she experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as a result of both the conditions of active combat in a war zone and the experience of sexual assault—many women develop PTSD without ever serving in the military, or even becoming victims of sex crimes. PTSD and Aging in Women Researchers at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center (SFVAMC) are finding that women with PTSD may be more likely “to experience faster aging at the cellular level and increased risk for diseases of aging than men with PTSD.” There may be a silver lining, however. The same researchers believe these finding may have implications in both preventing and treating PTSD in women in the military, where women are serving in increasing numbers, as well as in women in the civilian population. Aoife Donovan, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF and the SFVAMC-based Northern California Institute for Research and Education (NCIRE), studies “stress, inflammation and the shortening within cells of protective strands of DNA known as telomeres”—in short, the effects of extreme stress on aging. When the body experiences extreme and/or long-term stress, there are other biological impacts throughout the body and brain, including elevated cortisol levels (which can increase fat storage around the body’s middle), elevated blood pressure, reactive blood sugar levels, and lowered serotonin in the brain, which can lead to anxiety, depression and a diminished sense of well-being. Traumas that can lead to PTSD are case-by-case and can range from an experience with a car accident, the sudden death of a loved one, childhood abuse, domestic violence, being the victim of a violent crime, witnessing a violent crime, a natural cataclysm (such as a fire, tornado, or hurricane), sexual assault/rape, and war/combat. Adriana experienced two types of trauma and her stress was particularly intense and ongoing. She had no reason to feel guilty or concerned with disappointing her loved ones, but often, in a crisis such as she experienced, these feelings come with the territory. While she was not able to leave Afghanistan immediately after her assault, and she has not yet been able to find justice for what happened to her, she is meeting with a veteran’s psychologist as well as a group of former Marine women who all experienced what she did. Their support has been invaluable to Adriana, and through the sharing of their lived-experiences she is finally able to begin to make sense of the senselessness.    

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