Largest research project in U.S. military history, started in 2001, follows 187K service members for 21 years
The largest research project in U.S. military history aimed at studying the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder has now passed the halfway point.
The Millennium Cohort Study, run out of the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, is a 21-year study that is comprehensively following the lives and habits of 187,000 service members. Researchers began accumulating data 11 years ago, in 2001. The project is scheduled to run another decade, until 2022.
Researchers hope the massive amount of data they collect will help them pinpoint who gets PTSD and why.
What makes the project so unusual is its scope. Every three years, volunteers from every branch of the service — including National Guardsmen and reservists — complete a 400-question online survey. Among other things, the questionnaire asks about an individual’s deployment, occupation, job exposure, exercise habits, diet, sleep patterns, relationship status, use of medications, substance use, and any resulting health outcomes.
The survey attempts to create a complete picture of the impact of all life’s experiences on an individual’s mental and physical health.
“It’s a unique and powerful study that could help people for a long time,” said Dr. Nancy Crum-Cianflone, the project’s principal investigator. “It covers all those extra bases.”
Capt. Lanny Boswell, executive director of the Naval Health Research Center, compared the project with a larger version of the Framingham Heart Study. The Framingham study, which examines cardiovascular disease among residents of Framingham, Mass., began in 1948 with 5,209 adult subjects and is now on its third generation of participants.
As for the Millennium Cohort Study’s future impact on knowledge of PTSD: “There’s just not another vehicle I know that can be as helpful,” Boswell said.
Another potential groundbreaking aspect of the study is its potential to lead researchers to understand protective factors, said Sonya Norman, former director of the PTSD Clinic for Returning Veterans at the San Diego Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“We don’t know as much about what buffers someone from getting a disorder like PTSD,” Norman said. “We know more about what puts someone at risk. Because it’s so comprehensive, it should help us begin to get a fuller picture of how risk factors and how protective factors might interact.”
Participants in the study give data before, during and after deployment to enable researchers to further break down who is getting PTSD, Crum-Cianflone said. The program is still enrolling new participants, including spouses of service members, who became eligible for the study in June 2011.
Aside from PTSD, the study is also researching how time away affects families and children. It is one of the few vehicles that has studied the effect of 10 years of war on individuals, Crum-Cianflone said.
The results will eventually be used to help the VA treat service members.
“Nothing happens in a vacuum, including PTSD,” Norman said. “People come into the military with a lot of different backgrounds and experiences, and life continues to take everyone in a lot of different directions.
“The more we understand about the whole person and how those different experiences contribute to whether they develop PTSD — whether they’re willing to get treatment, whether they respond to treatment, how their relationships and life are affected by having PTSD — the better we can treat the whole person, address their specific needs and optimize their chances of recovering.”
By Nathan Max, U-T
U-T San Diego
July 8, 2012