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War Rougher on Young Soldiers

Young Veterans Likeliest to Have Physical, Psychological Illnesses Later
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 6, 2006 -- After war, young soldiers are likelier to have physical and psychological symptoms than older veterans, a new study shows.

The study stretches back more than 130 years but likely applies to more recent wars, the researchers write in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The study focused on Civil War veterans. Postwar physical and psychological illnesses were more common among the youngest soldiers and those who had endured wartime traumas like seeing comrades killed in combat.

The study comes from three researchers: Judith Pizarro, MA, Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, and JoAnn Prause, PhD. They work at the psychology and social behaviors department at University of California, Irvine.

Data From the Dead

The study included about 15,000 Union army recruits. They all got physical exams before enlisting.

The researchers chose to study Civil War veterans for a simple reason. All of those soldiers were dead, so their medical history was as complete as it would ever be.

Obviously, Pizarro's team couldn't interview those veterans. So, they pored over medical records, death certificates, and war records.

Medicine has come a long way since the Civil War, and some 19th century medical diagnoses differed from today's terms. For instance, the diagnosis of "posttraumatic stress disorder" didn't exist. Instead, doctors used the term "irritable heart syndrome" for mental health conditions due to war.

War's Effects on Young Recruits

Some Civil War soldiers enlisted before their 10th birthday. Others were in their 70s. At enlistment, the soldiers' ages ranged from 9 to 71 years, write Pizarro and colleagues.

Children aren't allowed to fight for the U.S. anymore, but child soldiers still exist in some parts of the world. According to the U.N., some 300,000 youths under the age of 18 are currently being used as child soldiers in as many as 30 areas of conflict worldwide.

Pizarro's study included the Union soldiers' ages, prewar jobs, wartime traumas, and postwar medical records. They also considered the fact that the healthiest recruits likely enlisted early in the war.

After war, veterans had an average of four cardiac, gastrointestinal, or nervous ailments. "Nervous" ailments in this review included mental health conditions and others such as insomnia and memory problems. The worst postwar medical records were seen in the youngest veterans -- who had enlisted between age 9 and 17 years -- and those with the most wartime traumas. The youngest recruits also had the highest risk of dying early after the war, the study shows.

Lessons for Today

"Unfortunately," write Pizarro and colleagues, the harmful health effects "seen in a war conducted more than 130 years ago are applicable to the health and well-being of soldiers fighting wars in the 21st century, as recent studies have suggested."

Children's nervous systems are immature, making it harder for them to handle emotion, notes editorialist Roger Pitman, MD.

Those facts "give even greater reason to shudder at the thought of children and adolescents serving in combat, which apparently was common in the U.S. Civil War and still occurs in some countries today," writes Pitman.

Pitman works in the psychiatry department of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

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