Service Members and Vets Smoke and Drink More, Sleep Less: Report

A Marine smokes a cigarette after an attack at Patrol Base Bracha in the Garmsir district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, Oct. 9, 2009. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps)
A Marine smokes a cigarette after an attack at Patrol Base Bracha in the Garmsir district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, Oct. 9, 2009. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps)

People who have served in the military smoke and drink more and sleep less than the general population, according to a report released Thursday by the United Health Foundation.

The study, based off a survey of approximately 60,000 veterans and service members annually from 2011 through 2014, also found higher rates of coronary heart disease, heart attack and cancer. Researchers said they'll deliver the results to the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and other health care providers in the hopes that it will help with treatment.

"We owe it to these people to see if anything can be done, if we could identify opportunities to improve," said Richard Migliori, senior adviser to the United Health Foundation, an offspring of insurer United Health Group. "I think we found some meaningful things here."

The findings show 25.2 percent of servicemembers and veterans who are 18 to 39 years old smoke, compared to 20.7 percent of the general population of the same age range. Approximately 20 percent of servicemembers and veterans drink excessively, while 18.1 percent of others do. Drinking excessively was defined by the report as either binge drinking, having five or more drinks in one sitting, or heavy drinking, which means having more than two drinks each day.

Service members and veterans are 39 percent more likely than others not to sleep enough.

"Since we found issues with sleep, smoking and alcohol use, we know we may be dealing with an area of stress – these are all stress related," Migliori said. "The good things about those findings, those are things that can be immediately worked on. Physicians should be focusing on those particular behaviors as they engage their patients."

Smoking and drinking could be a direct cause of the higher rates of coronary heart disease and cancer in people with military service, Migliori said.

Servicemembers and veterans are 62 percent more likely to have coronary heart disease and 67 percent more likely to have a heart attack, the study found.

Nearly 50 percent of veterans older than 80 years of age have been diagnosed with cancer, compared to about 34 percent of others older than 80. The types of cancers most frequently diagnosed by the VA are prostate, lung and colorectal cancer, the report states.

Previous studies have linked military service to increased risk for different types of cancer, such as the herbicide Agent Orange causing non-Hodgkin lymphoma in some veterans of the Vietnam War.

Rene Campos, a retired commander in the Navy and leader with the Military Officers Association of America, a nonprofit group that collaborated on the report, said she wanted to "dig into" the cancer statistics, as well as a finding that female servicemembers and veterans experience depression at higher rates. About 25.5 percent of them reported they were told by a health care provider they had a depressive disorder, while 22 percent of other females did.

Though they're at more risk for various health issues, veterans and servicemembers are less likely to tell their doctors about them.

"This data suggests those who have served will understate their illness or burden," he said. "Because I know these individuals who have served are less likely to complain about something, physicians should be advised to follow their instincts and maybe lower your threshold for ordering tests and making diagnoses."

There were some positive findings, too.

People with military service are more likely to be physically active and have health insurance. More servicemembers and veterans also see their doctors for cancer screenings, and more get flu vaccines and have regular dental visits.

Campos said the information could help drive policy changes.

"There's a very big topic of discussion on how the VA provides care to veterans," Campos said. "This paints a comparative portrait of those who have served against the civilian population. I think it gives that baseline view of who this population is and gives us data to work from."

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