Veterans are more likely to report very good or excellent health than their civilian counterparts, so they may not realize that they’re also at greater risk than civilians for some long-term health problems.
Of course, many veterans have acute physical health problems, like wounds and amputations, and trauma-based mental health issues like depression and PTSD. Indeed, mental health issues affect 30 percent of Vietnam veterans, 20 percent of Iraqi veterans and about 10 percent of Gulf War and Afghanistan veterans.
Less known are some of the ordinary, chronic conditions that disproportionately affect servicemen and women. A new America’s Health Rankings report, published in November, found that vets are more likely to have heart disease, heart attacks and cancer than civilians.
The report, which was authored by the United Health Foundation in partnership with the Military Officers Association of America, included data from 60,000 servicemen and women, collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here’s what the new report found:
1. Vets are nearly twice as likely to have heart disease and heart attacks
About 6 percent of veterans will have a heart attack or develop coronary heart disease, compared to between 3 and 4 percent of civilians who will have those health problems.
What’s more, there’s some evidence that post-traumatic stress disorder could damage the heart over time, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. The seven-year study analyzed the health of more than 8,000 veterans living in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands and found that veterans with PSTD were 50 percent more likely to have heart failure than veterans without PTSD.
2. Skin cancer is a major concern for Iraq and Afghanistan vets
According to the new America’s Health Rankings report, nearly half of veterans 80 years old and older were diagnosed with cancer, compared to about a third of civilians of the same age.
But younger veterans, particularly those who’ve returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, might want to be especially cognizant about their risk for skin cancer. According to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology last year, only 13 percent of veterans reported using sunscreen regularly during their last deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. While 87 percent said they sometimes used sunscreen, 20 percent reported getting at least one blistering sunburn.
That one blistering sunburn is enough to seriously up vets’ cancer risk, since sustaining five more more sunburns during one’s life doubles his or her risk of melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
3. Veterans are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior
A good chuck of those who have served ― 43 percent of them ― are unlikely to get sufficient sleep, which can raise their risk for diabetes, stroke and obesity.
Their daytime behavior isn’t necessarily making up for it either. Although veterans are more likely to exercise than civilians, they’re also more likely to drink excessively and smoke, high-risk behaviors that are linked to a host of health problems, including cancer, high blood pressure, alcoholism and mental health problems.