Is There A Link Between PTSD And Aging Faster?

Imagine you live through a horrific hurricane. You're 10 years old, and your mother is screaming at your father while your dad yells at you to stop crying. Afterward, you've lost your home, your pet, everything. It takes years for the family to recover. How long do you think that experience would affect you? The Mayo Clinic explains that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after exposure to traumatic situations or events, from war and natural disasters to sexual assault, abuse, car accidents, and other terrifying experiences. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), initial symptoms of PTSD include changes in mood and cognition, increased reactivity, avoidance, and intrusive thoughts or memories of the event. Not all survivors of traumatic events develop PTSD. However, for those who do, the long-term effects of PTSD may be worse than you think. Recent studies show a link between PTSD and aging faster, along with an increased risk of premature death.

Studies show PTSD can age the brain and damage DNA

Clinical studies show PTSD can age you from the inside out. A 2020 meta-analysis published in Psychological Bulletin reviewed 116,010 participants across 54 studies. Researchers found that children who experienced threat-related trauma aged faster on a cellular level. These subjects entered puberty faster than their peers and had shortened telomeres, a telltale sign of aging. The Australian Academy of Science explains that telomeres are the compounds that cap off chromosomes in the DNA chain and protect DNA from unraveling, like the plastic caps on shoelaces. With time, telomeres wear down and become shorter, exposing more of the DNA, which slowly deteriorates and causes aging-related functional problems. 

In people with PTSD, telomeres become shortened early on. Twenty-five other studies showed cortical thinning in people who had experienced childhood trauma, another common sign of aging. The specific brain regions where cortical thinning occurred differed depending on the type of trauma. Threat-related childhood trauma consistently resulted in thinning of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Subjects who experienced neglect and poverty in childhood showed thinning of the frontoparietal and visual networks. Together, the studies show that PTSD triggers biological aging for those subjected to threat-based trauma.

PTSD increases risk for aging-related diseases and death

According to Healthline, aging-related conditions like type 2 diabetes, dementia, and heart disease are more common among people with PTSD. A review of 10 mortality studies showed the likelihood of death increased by 29% for people with PTSD over those without PTSD. A 2000 article in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience explains that PTSD initially replaced previous terms like "shell shock" in the 1980s to address mental and emotional dysregulation in combat veterans from the Vietnam War. Today, the term is used for anyone whose symptoms last for over a month and cause significant distress and disruption in daily function (per APA). 

Symptoms may take time to develop and can persist for years. Feelings of shame, guilt, fear, anger, blame, mistrust, and detachment may lead to depression, substance abuse, memory problems, and other mental and physical health conditions — including accelerated aging and early death. The National Center for PTSD warns PTSD can lead to the early development of various health conditions, including cognitive decline and cardiovascular diseases.

The Mayo Clinic says while people may experience symptoms of PTSD after a traumatic event, most people do not develop long-term PTSD. If you are experiencing PTSD symptoms, talking to a therapist may help. 

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.