Updated Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 11:10 AM
A new study shows that the rate of coronary artery disease among U.S. service members has declined sharply in the past half century, falling to roughly 1 in 10 military personnel today from about 8 in 10 during the Korean War.
The findings came as a surprise to some researchers, who expected that the nationwide rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes, including among young people, might have led to a similar trend in heart disease in the military. But instead it appears that national reductions in other risk factors for heart disease, like hypertension, smoking and high cholesterol, have had a greater effect on cardiovascular health.
Some experts pointed out that those in today’s all-volunteer military are fitter than the general population and, presumably, those who served during the draft era of the Korean War.
The authors of the new study, which was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, drew their findings from autopsies and medical records of nearly 4,000 service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011.
During the Korean War, pathologists who carried out similar research, groundbreaking at the time, found that 77 percent had coronary atherosclerosis. The finding that so many seemingly healthy men in their late teens and 20s had significant buildup of plaque in the arteries shattered the perception of heart disease as purely an affliction of older people.
A shift in the 1970s from a military draft to voluntary enlistment may have produced a so-called healthy- warrior phenomenon in recent years, said Dr. Bryant J. Webber of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., who led the current study. Only 4 percent of those who died in Iraq or Afghanistan were obese, for example, compared with about 18 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the general U.S. population.