U.S. Veterans Face Higher Risk of Death from Traumatic Brain Injuries After 9/11 Study Finds

The reason for the increased death rates is unknown, leading the study's authors to call for more research.

The findings of a new study suggests that U.S. military veterans who served since 9/11 have higher death rates than the general American population, especially among those who suffered a head injury or traumatic brain injury.

Post-9/11 veterans who suffered a concussion or brain injury face an 11-fold increased risk of death, according to a report published this month in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.

The study notes that vets have been dying at higher rates over the past two decades, with increases especially concentrated among those with TBIs and those who are under the age of 45 years old. Prior research has linked suffering a TBI with increased risk of suicide among military veterans.

Researchers from the University of Texas, San Antonio studied data from more than 2.5 million military veterans who served after 9/11. They analyzed death data from January 2002 through December 2018 and included vets if they served active duty after 9/11 with three or more years of care in the Military Health System or two or more years of care in the Veterans Health Administration.

Post-9/11 veterans experienced higher rates of death from all-causes and from cause-specific mortality compared with the total US population. Most of the deaths were from suicide and accidents, with more veterans committing suicide than suffering accidents. Other causes also increased their risk of death, including homicide and cancer.

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Researchers used data from the Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense Identity Repository database, matching health records data from the Military Health Service Management Analysis and Reporting tool, the Veterans Health Administration Veterans Informatics and Computing Infrastructure, and the National Death Index. They compared this data to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER database.

Overall, roughly 18% of veterans suffered a mild TBI and 3% had a moderate or severe TBI. Those with a moderate to severe TBI accounted for 34% of total excess deaths. This rate is 11 times higher than would otherwise be expected.

Traumatic brain injuries occur when a person suffers a blow to the head. This can be a severe blow or what many people call a concussion. TBIs are often sustained during sports, car accidents, or other types of fall accidents. Research indicates suffering a TBI, even a mild one, can lead to increased risk of suffering from depression, increased risk of Dementia later in life, and an increased risk of having Alzheimer’s disease, even after suffering only one hit to the head.

In this study, there were over 4,300 more deaths among younger veterans under the age of 45 than would be expected in that age group compared to the general population of the same age. Another study published in 2014 had similar findings, indicating a person who suffered a TBI faced triple the risk of early death and was twice as likely to die from unintentional injuries.

Veterans of past conflicts had an opposite effect, with lower death rates compared to the general American population. Researchers said the findings of this study are concerning, considering the death risk is higher for veterans who served after 9/11 and there is no immediately apparent reason why.

“These results suggest that post-9/11 military veterans have higher mortality, especially among veterans exposed to traumatic brain injury compared with the general US population and that a focus on what puts veterans at risk for increased mortality is warranted,” the researchers concluded.


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