Hundreds of thousands of soldiers face exposure to combat during wars across the globe. The health effects of traumatic war experiences have not been adequately assessed across the lifetime of these veterans.
To identify the role of traumatic war experiences in predicting postwar nervous and physical disease and mortality using archival data from military and medical records of veterans from the Civil War.
An archival examination of military and medical records of Civil War veterans was conducted. Degree of trauma experienced (prisoner-of-war experience, percentage of company killed, being wounded, and early age at enlistment), signs of lifetime physician-diagnosed disease, and age at death were recorded.
Setting and Participants
The US Pension Board surgeons conducted standardized medical examinations of Civil War veterans over their postwar lifetimes. Military records of 17 700 Civil War veterans were matched to postwar medical records.
Main Outcome Measures
Signs of physician-diagnosed disease, including cardiac, gastrointestinal, and nervous disease; number of unique ailments within each disease; and mortality.
Military trauma was related to signs of disease and mortality. A greater percentage of company killed was associated with signs of postwar cardiac and gastrointestinal disease (incidence risk ratio [IRR], 1.34; P < .02), comorbid nervous and physical disease (IRR, 1.51; P < .005), and more unique ailments within each disease (IRR, 1.14; P < .005). Younger soldiers (<18 years), compared with older enlistees (>30 years), showed a higher mortality risk (hazard ratio, 1.52), signs of comorbid nervous and physical disease (IRR, 1.93), and more unique ailments within each disease (IRR, 1.32) (P < .005 for all), controlling for time lived and other covariates.
Greater exposure to death of military comrades and younger exposure to war trauma were associated with increased signs of physician-diagnosed cardiac, gastrointestinal, and nervous disease and more unique disease ailments across the life of Civil War veterans. Physiological mechanisms by which trauma might result in disease are discussed.