PTSD, Cognitive Impairment Link Found in 9/11 First Responders: Study

UPI - August 31, 2016

by Stephen Feller

CHICAGO- (UPI) -- A study of first responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack on the World Trade Center in New York confirmed a link between post-traumatic stress disorder and the development of cognitive impairment, which researchers say affects the treatment of first responders as well as military veterans and other people with PTSD.

Patients with PTSD should be monitored for signs of cognitive impairment, according to researchers at Stony Brook University, based on research consistently showing one condition can be predictive of the other after particularly traumatic experiences.

Previous research has linked PTSD, major depressive disorder and cognitive impairment, though researchers say the new study, published in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment and Disease Monitoring, is the first to show increased incidence of impairments in civilian responders to the terror attacks who did not sustain head injuries.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started the program in 2002 in order to monitor the health of police, firefighters and other officials who participated in the search, rescue and cleanup efforts after the attack.

More than 33,000 responders enrolled in the WTC Health Program and roughly one-fifth have developed PTSD, making the results of the research significant and far-reaching.

"This is a problem we must solve," Dr. Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer's Association, said in a press release. "The silver lining in these troubling new findings is that they will help us better understand the relationship between PTSD, cognition and dementia. More research is needed in this area. This is crucial so that we can provide better care for all individuals who experience PTSD."

For the study, the researchers screened 818 responders at Stony Brook University who reported for annual monitoring visits for cognitive impairment and dementia.

Roughly 12.8 percent of responders in the study had indications of cognitive impairment and 1.2 percent showed signs of possible dementia, which researchers extrapolated out to estimate that overall between 3,740 to 5,300 responders may have cognitive impairment and 240 to 810 may have dementia.

"These numbers are staggering, considering that the average age of responders was 53 during this study," said Dr. Sean Clouston, an assistant professor of public health at Stony Brook University. "If our results are replicable, doctors need to be aware of the impact of cognitive impairment among individuals who have experienced traumatic events leading to PTSD. For example, cognitive impairment can compound the course of PTSD and depression, impairing the person beyond the impact of PTSD itself."