Unraveling the Threads: University of Kentucky Scholar Explores the Nexus Between PTSD and Dementia

LEXINGTON, KY – In the hallowed halls of the University of Kentucky, a pioneering researcher embarks on an arduous quest to unveil the intricate connections between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dementia. Dr. Karen Lawrence, an Associate Professor in the esteemed UK College of Social Work, wielding both a Ph.D. and a Master’s in Social Work, has been bestowed a five-year grant by the National Institute on Aging, a component of the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Karen Lawrence

Dr. Lawrence’s expedition delves into a subject that remains largely enigmatic – the repercussions of PTSD on the cognitive aging process. PTSD, as delineated by the NIH, is an anxiety disorder spawned by severe mental, emotional, or physical anguish, such as military combat or natural calamities. This disorder wields the propensity to significantly hamper daily living. Dementia, on the other hand, denotes the declination of cognitive faculties to an extent where it impedes day-to-day functioning.

In a landscape where one in three American seniors departs life with some variant of dementia, the alarming revelation that PTSD is concomitant with a two-fold escalation in the risk of developing dementia is of paramount concern.

Dr. Lawrence’s seminal study, titled “Cognitive Aging Trajectories in Survivors of Trauma,” aims to scrutinize the toll PTSD exacts on cognitive deterioration and discern any gender-based disparities in its impact. Her methodology embraces the analysis of data from the National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center, encompassing 42 Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers, inclusive of the lauded University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging.

Additionally, Dr. Lawrence is charting new territories by accumulating novel data to ascertain whether a correlation exists between PTSD severity and cognitive faculties, and if the nature of the trauma holds significance in this correlation.

In a poignant statement, Dr. Lawrence elaborated on the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, which traditionally revolves around the nature of the traumatic incident, such as an imminent threat to life or grievous injury. However, the post-pandemic landscape paints an unsettling picture. Studies amalgamated reveal an astonishing ascension in PTSD prevalence, surging from 6% pre-pandemic to a staggering 23% in the aftermath. This phenomenon, once predominantly associated with combat veterans and first responders, is now alarmingly pervasive amongst civilians.

Dr. Lawrence’s conjecture posits that when other symptom criteria for PTSD are satisfied, a nexus between PTSD and cognitive functioning is apparent. These potential findings could herald a paradigm shift in the scope of those necessitating interventions for PTSD, and whether PTSD should be considered an early indicator for dementia prevention strategies.

As part of the NIH Mentored Research Scientist Development Award (K01), Dr. Lawrence will immerse herself in an intensive mentorship-driven career development program focusing on biomedical, behavioral, and clinical sciences. This odyssey is designed to forge her path towards becoming an authority on the multifaceted effects of traumatic stress and biopsychosocial factors on cognitive aging.

An advocate for the geriatric population, Dr. Lawrence lamented the dearth of comprehension regarding PTSD among older adults, who, often oblivious to the manifestations of PTSD, are less inclined to seek mental health interventions. This places them at greater risk of their conditions remaining unaddressed.

Fueled by empathy and her personal connection to a military veteran family member, Dr. Lawrence is resolute in her commitment to illuminating the shadows surrounding PTSD and dementia. Through her assiduous efforts, she hopes to alleviate the suffering of those ensnared by these debilitating conditions and bestow upon them the prospect of a brighter future.

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