PTSD veterans saddled with potential for dementia

Special to the S-E

When Colville’s Scott Cordell joined the military in 1970, utmost on his mind was serving his country. He could not have imagined that, during his six years of service, he would end up on the military’s “radiation watch list,” that he would get exposed to too much asbestos, that he would become the victim of gang rape, and that he would end up with a “complex PTSD” diagnosis.

But most alarming is that, after years of striving to forget a lot of that, he has been told he is now facing memory loss. Recent research indicates nearly half of all veterans diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will develop dementia.

The possibility of dementia first came up with a CAT scan. “The doctor saw white areas on the brain,” Cordell recalls. Several causes were all likely: mini strokes, a heart operation and stress due to PTSD. All can be linked to dementia.

When the diagnosis was confirmed, Cordell’s doctor prescribed a pharmaceutical designed to increase blood flow to his brain.

“My wife thinks it’s helping,” he said. But some days he’s not so sure. He’s noticed a decline in his short-term memory. And there are hand tremors; sometimes he finds himself shuffling his feet. Nonetheless, the medication seems to be diminishing the flashbacks and nightmares that have plagued him for decades.

Familiar habits

As long as he sticks to familiar and well-established habits, life seems mostly normal. It’s a long drive to work, but that’s been problem-free. On the drive home, Cordell’s mind is uncharacteristically freed from details of the day. He forgets all about work between getting off and coming back.

Learning to make lists to keep him on track has become important.

“Going somewhere new can be a real problem,” Cordell has found. “So far, my driving is okay, but my doctor told me that if I start to notice problems, we’ll need to take a good look at that.”

Cordell is thinking he may deliberately work at becoming a quieter person. Along with hearing loss, he says he’s also starting to slur his words.

He confides that, “My doctor told me the language center in my brain is damaged. Sometimes when I want a certain word to come out, a different word does. So I’m learning to listen more.”

He’s been thinking a lot about a future that looks both quiet and peaceful.

The doctor has urged Cordell to find ways to reduce stress, such as making a priority of meditation and doing fun things with his family. Another suggestion, which is a tall order for a serious guy: to not take himself so seriously.

Stress issues

One of the bigger questions facing those studying dementia and PTSD is why half of PTSD veterans do not develop dementia. Were they somehow processing their stress better, or did they have lesser degrees of stress? Were there fewer head concussions? Were there differences in diet and exercise habit?

What is known is that the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, is damaged by chronic stress, due to high levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone. The brain’s goal is to store dangerous situations so they can serve as lessons that inform protective responses in the future.

Beyond the obvious disadvantages of excessive stress, such as the nightmares and flashbacks Cordell and other PTSD sufferers endure, long-term stress can prompt complications such as interference with thyroid function; increased inflammation; increases in depression and anxiety, mood disorders and memory loss; reduced serotonin levels; a reduction in the brain’s ability to heal; a negative impact on growth hormones; loss of muscle; an increase in insulin resistance and abdominal fat; increases in the release of fats to the bloodstream; increases in stickiness of blood and platelet aggregation, which leads to clots, which lead to heart attacks and strokes; declines in social functions, and increases in “excitotoxicity” that lead to cell death.

While that host of life-threatening forces is intimidating, there is hope. What provides encouragement is the relatively recent breakthrough information for treating dementia.

A 2014 UCLA study showed dementia, Alzheimer’s and some other memory diseases had been reversed in 90 percent of a small test group. That was accomplished with the adoption of “common sense lifestyle and health supporting therapies.”


In Reversal of Cognitive Decline, a novel therapy program, a summary of that study, ten adults with dementia were put on individualized treatment programs. Within three to six months, all but one (who had “very late stage” Alzheimer’s) saw noticeable improvement. Six of the participants, who had all quit their jobs due to inability to perform, were able to return to work. The back-to-work group included an attorney, a data analyst and an entrepreneur. They all had more advanced dementia than what Cordell reports.

Prior to the UCLA treatment, each participant had been told their condition was untreatable.

So what kind of magic did the UCLA study practice on their volunteers? Each, depending on their nutritional needs, made adjustments to diet, including the use of herbs and supplements. It was not without side-affects: weight loss and optimal Body Mass Index were also achieved.

Ironically, study participants did not follow all the protocols prescribed. They balked at some of the disciplines, but still displayed life-changing outcomes that have been maintained.

The study acknowledges that it was a small group to observe, therefore making the study “anecdotal.” But, the summary emphasizes that the results point to the need for further study.

Fortunately, Cordell’s dementia has been detected early. He can deliberate about coping strategies, and can assess what is working for him.

The fallout of his military experience prompts him to say, “I hope people might consider being more sensitive to the needs of others, those who have served their country honorably.” He acknowledges that a veteran’s appearance can be deceptive; they may look okay, but be dealing with long-term side effects, with extreme prolonged stress. And now, added to the list, is the possibility of dementia.

At his point in life, Cordell’s decided that, “It doesn’t matter what you’ve got, if you manage it with the help of a loving support group or family, and a host of angels.”

Sources include: Ultra-Mind, by Dr. Mark Hyman (he author experienced a brain “crash” and shares his research leading to his and his patients’ recovery); Ultra-Prevention, by Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Mark Liponis; Reversal of Cognitive Decline, by Dale Bredesen (available on-line) and Bucks Institute for Research on Aging.

As seen in the Statesman-Examiner.