Health Services Research & Development

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Maynard C, Trivedi R, Nelson K, Fihn SD. Disability Rating, Age at Death, and Cause of Death in U.S. Veterans with Service-Connected Conditions. Military medicine. 2018 Nov 1; 183(11-12):e371-e376.
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Abstract: Introduction: The association between disability and cause of death in Veterans with service-connected disabilities has not been studied. The objective of this study was to compare age at death, military service and disability characteristics, including disability rating, and cause of death by year of birth. We also examined cause of death for specific service-connected conditions. Materials and methods: This study used information from the VETSNET file, which is a snapshot of selected items from the Veterans Benefits Administration corporate database. We also used the National Death Index (NDI) for Veterans which is part of the VA Suicide Data Repository. In VETSNET, there were 758,324 Veterans who had a service-connected condition and died between the years 2004 and 2014. Using the scrambled social security number to link the two files resulted in 605,493 (80%) deceased Veterans. Age at death, sex, and underlying cause of death were obtained from the NDI for Veterans and military service characteristics and types of disability were acquired from VETSNET. We constructed age categories corresponding to period of service; birth years 1938 and earlier corresponded to Korea and World War II ("oldest"), birth years 1939-1957 to the Vietnam era ("middle"), and birth years 1958 and later to post Vietnam, Gulf War, and the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan ("youngest"). Results: Sixty-two percent were in the oldest age category, 34% in the middle group, and 4% in the youngest one. The overall age at death was 75 ± 13 yr. Only 1.6% of decedents were women; among women 25% were in the youngest age group, while among men only 4% were in the youngest group. Most decedents were enlisted personnel, and 60% served in the U.S. Army. Nearly 61% had a disability rating of >50% and for the middle age group 54% had a disability rating of 100%. The most common service-connected conditions were tinnitus, hearing loss, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the oldest group, nearly half of deaths were due to cancer or cardiovascular conditions and <2% were due to external causes. In the youngest group, cardiovascular disease and cancer accounted for about 1/3 of deaths, whereas external causes or deaths due to accidents, suicide, or assault accounted for nearly 33% of deaths. For Veterans with service-connected PTSD or major depression; 6.5% of deaths were due to external causes whereas for Veterans without these conditions, only 3.1% were due to external causes. Conclusion: The finding of premature death due to external causes in the youngest age group as well as the finding of higher proportions of external causes in those with PTSD or major depression should be of great concern to those who care for Veterans.