Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized stress are common in U.S. vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and several studies have shown massage therapy effective in reducing stress. In a new study, researchers from the University of Florida have found that emotional trauma from combat can follow military personnel into old age.

The findings are relevant in light of the exposure of today’s men and women to heavy combat in the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars on terror at a rate that probably exceeds the length of time for U.S. veterans during World War II, according to a university press release.

“The study shows that we really need to take care of our veterans when they arrive home, because if we don’t, they may have problems for the rest of their lives,” said University of Florida sociologist Monika Ardelt. “Yet veterans report they are facing long waiting lines at mental health clinics and struggling to get the services they need.”

The study compared 50 World War II veterans with high combat exposure with 110 veterans without any combat experiences. Results showed that heavy combat exposure at a young age had a detrimental effect on physical health and psychological well-being for about half of the men well into their 80s, she said.

Participants were veterans who had been members of Harvard’s undergraduate class between 1940 and 1944. “Because this was a very privileged sample, I would be even more concerned about the people who are coming home now, who are not necessarily privileged and joined the army for economic reasons,” she said.

The study also found that about half of the veterans who experienced a high level of combat showed signs of stress-related growth at mid-life, leading to greater wisdom and well-being in old age than among veterans who witnessed no combat, she said.

Firing at the enemy, killing people and watching others die is enormously stressful, but it can result in personal growth as with survivors of cancer and sexual assault, Ardelt said. “You can either conclude that God has abandoned you, the world is an unfair place and there is nothing else to do but close yourself off from it all or you can manage to open yourself up and develop compassion for the suffering of others realizing that you have now become a part of it.”

The findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Research in Human Development.

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