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Military service creates health challenges – and benefits

A new book puts America’s older veterans in the spotlight

The United States spends more than $100 billion annually on health care services for active and retired military veterans. Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among military veterans are well-known and studied, but the subtler effects on the well-being of these individuals, particularly later in life, is still largely misunderstood.

A new book about World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans – “Long-Term Outcomes of Military Service: The Health and Well-Being of Aging Veterans” – provides valuable insights into the effects of military service as a hidden variable in aging research.

The book’s editors are OSU’s Rick Settersten, endowed director of the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families and Carolyn Aldwin, the Jo Anne Leonard endowed director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research; and their collaborator Avron Spiro at the Normative Aging Study at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health.

The book, published last month by the American Psychological Association, was the culminating project of a grant funded by the National Institute on Aging to establish a research network on the long-term outcomes of military service.

“This book is especially written for researchers on aging and for clinicians who work with aging veterans and their families,” Carolyn says. “It is also highly relevant for policy makers.”

The inspiration for the book dates back to 1988, when Carolyn and Avron began to study the long-term effects of military service among World War II and Korean War veterans. Carolyn says that at that time, they were surprised to find both negative and positive effects of combat exposure on veterans’ health and well-being, providing the impetus for the book.

Drawing on many longitudinal data sets, the book focuses on how the effects of service play out across different war eras and over the decades of adult life. Topics include how:

  • Combat affects longevity, brain functioning and cognition
  • Experiencing discrimination affects development of PTSD in women and members of minority groups
  • Resiliency and personality matters in determining physical and mental health outcomes
  • Service affects pathways in employment and retirement, and in marriage and family life
  • Ideas of patriotism and nationalism among veterans and their children change over time

The book also explores how veterans may age differently than non-veterans, as well how those who saw combat may age differently from those who did not.

“Those who enter military service tend to be healthier – mentally and physically – to begin with,” Rick says. “Aging veterans can be healthier – at least in the short term – than non-veterans but veterans who have significant levels of combat exposure or more deployments, may exhibit impaired aging. This could be due to the toll of service accumulating over time or because the normative challenges of aging suddenly leave them more vulnerable in their later years.”

Rick and Carolyn are leading a new study in 2018, that will examine processes of resilience and vulnerability among Oregon’s aging veterans and their families.