Researchers at University of California at San Diego School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System led by Dr. Dilip V. Jeste, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and director of the Center on Healthy Aging and Senior Care at the University of California at San Diego, are the first to link post-traumatic stress disorder to genetic changes. This discovery puts PTSD on a par with other mental illnesses like schizophrenia.
The study involved an analysis of other research that examined PTSD and changes in the leukocyte telomere length, occurrence of medical conditions that indicated advanced aging, and death. Changes in the leukocyte telomere length were correlated with PTSD 34.4 percent of the time and death occurred in 16.6 of the cases studied. A leukocyte is a white blood cell. A telomere is the end of a chromosome. Telomere length is shortened as part of the natural aging process and early shortening of telomeres is a sign of advanced aging relative to other people.
The study results indicate that PTSD, a mental illness that has not been correlated with a defined genetic change, does produce advanced aging and changes in some genes. Similar advanced aging has been seen to occur in people that have HIV, Down’s syndrome, and other non-genetic diseases that produce changes in the immune system. Studies of mental illnesses and inflammatory diseases have shown that advanced aging that is often indicated by the development of diseases that are considered to be associated with old age are common.
The researchers suggest that their findings lend credence to the consideration of PTSD as a disease state. The difference may appear subtle but funding for care for a physical disease is easier to obtain than funding for a mental illness. Even in the age of Obamacare, mental illness is stigmatized in terms of insurance coverage and research funding.