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Civil War Vets Suffered Long After Battles Ended

Youngest soldiers in deadliest units had more illnesses, earlier deaths

TUESDAY, Feb. 7, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- America's Civil War took more than more 600,000 lives, but its veterans felt the devastation long after, new research suggests.

Soldiers whose units suffered the highest death rates had higher rates of illness later in life, according to an analysis of medical records. And those most affected were the youngest veterans, who suffered earlier deaths and high rates of mental and physical illnesses.

"The message is that increased trauma has physical and mental costs, and that's applicable to today's wars," said study co-author Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Irvine. "This is making that point in a way that no one has been able to before."

Silver and her colleagues examined the military and medical records of 16,600 veterans who fought for the North in the deadliest conflict in American history. The records were compiled by U.S. Pension Board surgeons, who tracked the veterans over their lifetimes after the war.

According to Silver, similar statistics for Southern soldiers weren't available.

The researchers compared young soldiers -- aged 9 to 18 -- to soldiers older than 30. They took special interest in soldiers who served in military companies with the highest death rates.

The findings appear in the February issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

The study doesn't definitively say traumatic war experiences caused illnesses and early death among the soldiers who survived the Civil War. But the findings make a "compelling" case for a connection, Silver said.

After adjusting the statistics to remove any influence of factors such as the income levels of the soldiers, the researchers found that those in the companies with the highest death rates were 1.34 times more likely to suffer from cardiac and gastrointestinal illness after the war.

Younger soldiers seemed to have the hardest time recovering from bloody battles. Those in the companies with high death rates were 93 percent more likely to suffer from both physical and mental illness later in life than the older soldiers who had similar experiences.

"We infer that individuals who are younger when they're experiencing these traumas are more stressed by what they're witnessing," Silver said.

The risk of early death was also higher among the younger soldiers whether or not they served in companies with high death rates, although the researchers didn't determine exactly how much earlier the younger soldiers died on average.

Were the soldiers suffering from what today's doctors call post-traumatic stress syndrome?

That is not clear. But modern research does suggest an explanation for why the younger soldiers may have been most vulnerable to lifelong difficulties, said Dr. Roger K. Pitman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who wrote a commentary accompanying the study.

According to Pitman, the brain doesn't fully develop its ability to handle stress until well into young adulthood. In younger soldiers exposed to extensive trauma, "that may set them up for post-traumatic stress disorder," he said.

People with PTSD, such as assault victims and veterans of war, are unable to turn off their responses to stress and often develop physical illnesses as a result of eternally being on edge.

Jay Winik, an historian and author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America, said the findings don't mesh with his image of Civil War soldiers.

"My sense was that they were pretty hardy people, and they accepted death with an alacrity that's hard for us to understand today," he said. "We have lot of anecdotal evidence of people who saw terrible awful things and had no repercussions."

In essence, he said, "they were made of sturdier stuff than we are."

More information

Learn more about the Civil War from the online encyclopedia

SOURCES: Roxane Cohen Silver, Ph.D., professor, psychology and social behavior, University of California at Irvine; Roger K. Pitman, professor, psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Jay Winik, author, April 1865: The Month That Saved America; February 2006 Archives of General Psychiatry
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