Children with parents in the military have higher blood pressure, heart rates and general stress levels than their peers during wartime, researchers say .
Researchers looked at 121 adolescents - including 48 with civilian parents, 20 with a parent deployed to Iraq and 53 with a parent in the military but not deployed - days after Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched in March 2003 and nearly three months later when President Bush announced major hostilities had ceased.
At both points, adolescent offspring of military personnel self-reported higher levels of stress and measures of blood pressure and heart rates supported that.
'We expected stress levels would push up blood pressure and heart rates,' says Dr. Vernon Barnes, physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and principal author of a paper published in the January issue of Military Medicine.
Dr. Barnes and his colleagues used a posttraumatic stress disorder questionnaire developed by the military for personnel and modified for adolescents, a survey to assess psychosocial concerns such as sense of well-being and faith in government as well as more objective heart rate and blood pressure measures.
Not surprisingly, they found that particularly adolescents with deployed parents had higher rates than their classmates. Studies were done at the Academy of Richmond County, a high school in Augusta, Ga., attended by many children whose parents are stationed at Fort Gordon.
Acknowledging that the study size was small and did not assess non-war related stressors, the researchers note that the physical impact of the war on military offspring merits attention. 'We are not aware of any studies examining the impact of the onset of the war on both stress levels and blood pressure of military offspring,' Dr. Barnes says.
There is evidence of the impact of environmental stress on blood pressure and heart rate, important indicators of cardiovascular health, he says. 'Certainly the stress response is increased in soldiers, but this research indicates that it's also increased in the families they leave behind.'
'Given the continued presence of U.S. soldiers deployed to (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and mounting casualties, these findings suggest that youth with family members in the military, particularly those deployed overseas, may warrant increased attention of parents, educators and counselors during this period of active conflict,' researchers write.
'Further research is warranted to determine whether stress reduction interventions may be effective in reducing stress levels and associated indices of sympathetic nervous system arousal in children of military personnel.'
The work was funded in part by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; a research abstract was presented at the American Psychosomatic Society's 2004 annual meeting.