TUESDAY, Aug. 1, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq are prone to mild mental and emotional problems once they return home, a new study finds.
Both male and female soldiers deployed to Iraq scored lower on measures of what are called "neuropsychological abilities," such as sustained attention, verbal learning and visual-spatial memory, than soldiers who served elsewhere.
Service in Iraq was also associated with higher levels of confusion and tension, the researchers reported.
"The changes were both positive and negative, both pretty mild," said study author Jennifer J. Vasterling, a clinical psychologist with the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System.
But she cited only one positive change. The soldiers who served in Iraq had faster reaction times than those who did not -- understandable for people who could expect to be attacked at any time.
The findings are published in the Aug. 2 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The researchers performed tests on 961 active-duty soldiers who served in Iraq, and a comparison group of 307 soldiers who did not serve overseas. The results were adjusted to take into account factors including depression and head injuries.
"The changes were mild, primarily within normal limits, so we are not suggesting a serious neurological disorder or dysfunction," Vasterling said.
Dr. Andrew Saxon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, said, "Overall, what this suggests is that the effects of deployment are pretty serious. They will have an effect on mental function."
Yet those effects are "relatively mild and circumscribed," Saxon said. "If someone returns to a job on the assembly line, they would not affect him or her very much. But if they work in an office and have to keep track of a lot of information, it might affect their performance."
It is important to know whether the changes will persist, Saxon said. "More follow-up is needed to determine the long-term consequences," he said.
Follow-up studies are being done, Vasterling said. The first tests were done an average of 73 days after the soldiers came back from Iraq. New tests will be done anywhere from nine months to 14 months later, she said.
"The question is, how temporary these findings are, if there is a subgroup where the problem persists," Vasterling added. "We have to know who maintains function, and who doesn't."
You can learn more about combat stress at the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.