PTSD Tied to Cognitive Decline in Middle-Aged Women

Women with a history of trauma exposure may be at higher risk for early cognitive decline that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, a new study suggests.

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More than 8,000 women in the study reported PTSD symptoms related to traumatic experiences.?Alba Vitta/Stocksy

Women who experience the severe, persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be at increased risk for accelerated cognitive decline by the time they reach middle age, a new study suggests.

For the study, researchers examined data on 12,270 women who were 61 years old on average and had some exposure to trauma in their past. Traumatic exposure could include life-threatening illnesses or injuries, natural disaster, war, or sexual or physical assault that participants experienced or witnessed.

Overall, 8,218 women, or 67 percent, reported some PTSD symptoms related to traumatic experiences. Roughly 41 percent of the women in the study reported milder PTSD with one to three symptoms, while 17 percent experienced moderate PTSD with four or five symptoms, and almost 8 percent had high levels of PTSD with six or seven symptoms.

During up to two years of follow-up, women had cognitive tests every 6 to 12 months to assess attention, memory, and motor skills. The pace and extent of cognitive decline increased in lockstep with the number of PTSD symptoms women reported, according to the study results, published June 30 in JAMA Network Open.

“This study’s findings highlight the importance of PTSD prevention and treatment to promote healthy cognitive aging and suggest that earlier cognitive screening among women with PTSD?should be considered,” the study team concluded.

While PTSD can be different for everyone, the condition typically involves intense, disturbing thoughts related to a traumatic event in the past, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). People may relive trauma in flashbacks or nightmares; feel anger, fear, or sadness; or feel detached or estranged from others. Individuals with PTSD may avoid people or situations that remind them of the trauma they experienced, and be triggered by an unexpected touch or loud noise.

Women are more likely than men to experience PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD. Roughly 8 percent of women and 6 percent of men will have PTSD at some point in their lives. And slightly more than one in two women will experience trauma — most often sexual assault, childhood abuse or neglect, domestic violence, or the sudden loss of a loved one.

One limitation of the new study is that it included primarily white female nurses, and it’s possible that other populations of women might not have the same results. Another drawback is that researchers didn’t track cognitive changes beyond two years, leaving it unclear how PTSD symptoms might influence long-term brain function.

But the results add to a growing body of evidence linking past trauma exposure and lingering PTSD symptoms to deteriorating cognitive ability over time, the study team noted. This has been seen in earlier studies of rape survivors and survivors of childhood sexual abuse?and childhood abuse and neglect.

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