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Military Service and Dementia: Understanding the Connection

How can military service impact brain health? What are specific risk factors? Are there vital steps soldiers can take towards dementia prevention and treatment?
American Army Veterans

In a society where the valor and sacrifices of our military personnel are rightly celebrated, it is essential to understand and address the unique health challenges they face. Among these, the potential link between military service and dementia—a debilitating condition affecting memory, cognitive abilities, and social skills—stands as a matter of critical concern. Although the connection may not be immediately evident, military service can introduce specific risk factors that may increase the likelihood of developing dementia. 

In this blog post, we delve into the intricacies of this relationship, offering a detailed exploration of the types of dementia, how military service can impact brain health, the scientific studies establishing the link, and the vital steps towards prevention and treatment. 

Brief Overview of Dementia

Dementia isn’t just one thing – it’s more like a big umbrella that covers many different conditions affecting our memory, thinking, and social skills. It’s kind of like having a puzzle where the pieces just won’t fit together as they should, making it difficult to get a clear picture. Let’s break it down into some specific types of dementia that can affect people, including those in the military community.

  • Alzheimer’s disease: This is the most common type of dementia. It’s like an unwelcome visitor that slowly but surely starts affecting a person’s memory, thinking skills, and ability to carry out simple tasks. In this case, the brain cells themselves degenerate and die, causing a steady decline in memory and mental function.
  • Vascular dementia: Think of your brain like a busy city with roads and highways. Now, imagine if some of these routes were blocked. That’s what happens in vascular dementia. It occurs when the blood flow to the brain is reduced, affecting its ability to function properly.
  • Lewy body dementia: This is like having uninvited guests (abnormal clumps of protein) in the brain, which affect its normal functions. It not only impacts memory but can also result in visual hallucinations, as well as physical issues like trembling and stiffness.
  • Frontotemporal dementia: This type mostly affects the front (areas responsible for decision-making and controlling behavior) and side (regions involved in language and emotions) parts of the brain. It’s like having the control centers of your brain slowly slipping out of gear.
  • Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE): This type of dementia is especially important when we talk about veterans. CTE is caused by repetitive head trauma and can result in behavioral changes, mood disorders, and problems with thinking. This type of dementia has been found in soldiers exposed to blasts, athletes involved in contact sports, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

Each of these types of dementia can show up differently in different people. It’s important for us to understand them better so we can help those affected – especially our veterans – lead a better quality of life.

Military service can be a challenging time for many people. Soldiers face unique experiences and situations that most of us might never encounter in our daily lives. It’s no surprise that these experiences can have an impact on their health in the long term. 

This doesn’t mean every veteran will face health issues, but it’s something that doctors and scientists are studying closely to make sure veterans get the care they need. One of the issues they’re looking into is the connection between military service and dementia. 

Why are veterans at an increased risk of developing dementia?

Recent reports show a disproportionate impact of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia on veterans, an urgent health challenge for older veterans, and a long-term threat to younger veterans. This is because, relative to civilians, veterans are exposed to many additional factors that increase their risk for developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, such as:

  • Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs): Military service often exposes veterans to situations where head injuries can occur, such as combat-related events, falls, or accidents. These TBIs can disrupt normal brain function, leading to long-term cognitive impairments and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The severity and frequency of TBIs sustained during military service can have a cumulative effect on cognitive health.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Veterans frequently experience high-stress levels and are more likely to experience traumatic events during their service than the civilian population, which can harm their brain health. The chronic and intense nature of combat situations and traumatic events can trigger PTSD, and PTSD is linked with cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Exposure to Toxins: Military personnel may have been exposed to various toxins during their service, such as chemicals, solvents, and heavy metals. These substances can enter the body through inhalation/ingestion or skin contact, potentially causing damage to brain cells and increasing the risk of cognitive decline. For example, exposure to certain pesticides and herbicides such as Agent Orange or depleted uranium has been associated with an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases
  • Age and Genetics: AS veterans age, they enter a period of life where they are at increased risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Age-related changes in the brain are exacerbated by previously experienced stress or trauma. They can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s as well as potentially increasing the rate of its progression if it does develop. Additionally, Alzheimer’s is known to have a hereditary factor that increases an individual’s susceptibility to it and other forms of dementia.

Studies and Research: Establishing the Link 

Scientific research plays an integral role in piecing together the complex relationship between military service and dementia. Diseases like Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, and others are being carefully investigated to understand if their prevalence is higher among veterans due to their military service. 

Numerous studies have shed light on this topic. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a higher propensity for dementia in veterans with a history of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Understanding whether veterans are more susceptible to dementia compared to the non-military population is another key to establishing the impact of military service on brain health. According to several studies, veterans indeed face a higher risk of developing dementia compared to the general population. This increased vulnerability can be attributed to the unique set of challenging conditions they encounter during their service.

Not only are veterans at a higher risk of contracting dementia, but some studies suggest that dementia tends to set in earlier and progress more rapidly in this group. The underlying reasons for this phenomenon warrant further investigation.

While there is a definite connection between military service and dementia, it’s clear that many aspects of this link still need further exploration. By continuing to study this connection, we can work towards understanding the full scope of this issue and, consequently, develop more effective strategies for prevention and treatment.

What can veterans do to help themselves? 

While dementia can be scary to think about, there are tools that veterans can use to take control of their cognitive health. If you or a loved one are a veteran that has or thinks they may be at risk of developing dementia, take note of the following:

  1. Seek Regular Medical Care: Veterans must establish a relationship with a healthcare provider who can monitor their cognitive health and address any concerns. Regular check-ups and screenings can aid in early detection, and a proactive approach can be pivotal in preventing the onset of symptoms.
  2. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Regular exercise, a balanced diet, managing stress, and getting sufficient sleep are all essential components of maintaining brain health. Physical activity has been shown to positively impact cognitive function and can help reduce the risk of dementia. 
  3. Manage Brain Injuries and PTSD: Veterans who have experienced traumatic brain injuries or have been diagnosed with PTSD should seek appropriate treatment and therapy. Rehabilitation programs for brain injuries and evidence-based therapies for PTSD can help mitigate the long-term effects on cognitive health. 
  4. Stay Mentally and Socially Active: Engaging in mentally stimulating activities such as puzzles, reading, learning new skills, or pursuing hobbies can help maintain cognitive function. Social interaction and participation in community activities have also been associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline. 
  5. Utilize Support and Resources: Veterans should take advantage of the various support programs and resources available to them. These may include counseling services, support groups, caregiver assistance programs, and financial aid tailored to veterans with cognitive conditions.
  6. Educate Themselves and Loved Ones: Veterans and their families should educate themselves about dementia, including the causes, symptoms, and available support services. Understanding these conditions can help manage expectations and provide everyone with a better quality of life. 

While veterans may face unique challenges and risks, with increased understanding and targeted interventions, we can help mitigate the impact of these challenges. As a society, our role is to support our brave servicemen and servicewomen by ensuring they have access to the best available care, staying informed about new research and treatment advances, and advocating for continued research in this crucial area.

Remember, dementia, like any storm, can be intimidating. But with preparation, support, and resilience, it’s a storm that can be weathered. Our veterans have demonstrated their resilience time and time again. Let’s stand by them as they face this new challenge, providing the care, respect, and gratitude they have so rightly earned.

By: Claire Szewczyk 

Claire Szewczyk is a Digital Content Coordinator for Hill & Ponton, PA in Florida. She was a former US Airforce civilian employee, who worked at Hill Air Force Base, in Layton, UT and spent several years working with the Department of Veterans Affairs audiology programs in Salt Lake City, UT and Pocatello, ID.

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B. Berger

B. Berger

This site was inspired by my Mom’s autoimmune dementia.

It is a place where we separate out the wheat from the chaffe, the important articles & videos from each week’s river of news. With a new post on Alzheimer’s or dementia appearing on the internet every 7 minutes, the site’s focus on the best information has been a help to many over the past 15 years. Thanks to our many subscribers for your supportive feedback.

The site is dedicated to all those preserving the dignity of the community of people living with dementia.

Peter Berger, Editor

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This site was inspired by my Mom’s autoimmune dementia.

It is a place where we separate out the wheat from the chaffe, the important articles & videos from each week’s river of news. With a new post on Alzheimer’s or dementia appearing on the internet every 7 minutes, the site’s focus on the best information has been a help to many over the past 15 years. Thanks to our many subscribers for your supportive feedback.

The site is dedicated to all those preserving the dignity of the community of people living with dementia.

Peter Berger, Editor

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