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Publication Briefs

Women Veterans Report Poorer Health Outcomes Compared to Civilian and Active Duty Women

Women who served in the military are a rapidly growing minority in the U.S. population and a traditionally understudied group; however, research on women in the military and women Veterans has increased substantially in the past five years, with many studies comparing active duty women and women Veterans with their male counterparts. This study sought to provide estimates of leading U.S. health indicators by military service status among women. Using data from the CDC's 2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey (BRFSS), investigators identified 274,399 civilian women, 4,221 women Veterans, 995 National Guard or Reserves (NG/R) women, and 661 active duty women. Measures from the BRFSS that were compared for these groups of women included demographics and health outcomes; for example, healthcare access (i.e., insurance coverage), self-reported general health (from "poor" to "excellent"), health risk behaviors (i.e., smoking status, drinking, cancer screening), and chronic health conditions (i.e., obesity, heart disease, stroke, cancer, mental illness).


  • Veteran women reported consistently poorer health compared with the other three groups of women, including poorer general health, greater likelihood of health risk behaviors (e.g., smoking), and greater likelihood of chronic conditions and mental health disorders.
  • Veterans were most likely — and active duty least likely — to report frequent poor physical health.
  • Veterans were more likely than civilian and active duty women to be obese or overweight — and to have cardiovascular disease. NG/R women also were more likely to be overweight or obese than both civilian and active duty women.
  • Veterans were more likely than civilians to report a history of depressive disorder and more likely than active duty women to report a history of anxiety disorder. NG/R women were more likely than civilian and active duty women to report both depression and anxiety.
  • Tobacco use and lack of exercise were most commonly reported among Veterans and least commonly reported among active duty women.
  • Compared to civilians, Veteran women were more highly educated and had higher incomes. Despite these protective factors, Veteran women reported faring better than civilians on only two indicators — health insurance and receiving clinical breast exams.


  • This study relied on self-report measures.
  • Data on combat, trauma exposure, and number and duration of deployments — all of which may help explain health outcomes — were unavailable.
  • Data on cancer and mood disorders were available from a relatively small number of states, thus conclusions drawn from these data should be viewed with caution.

This study was funded by the VA Puget Sound Health Care System. Dr. Nelson is part of HSR&D's Northwest Center for Outcomes Research in Older Adults, Seattle, WA.

PubMed Logo Lehavot K, Hoerster K, Nelson K, et al. Health Indicators for Military, Veteran, and Civilian Women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine May 2012;42(5):473-80.

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