American soldiers exposed to bomb blasts in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering early brain degeneration and aging—even if they were far from detonation, USA Today reports. In all, 256 veterans and service members between the ages of 19 and 62 were analyzed in a study published today in Brain: A Journal of Neurology. Among them, 195 had "experienced an explosive blast at a distance" of less than about 110 yards, the study says; the remaining 61 had endured no blasts in that range. In the first group, 69% were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI). In the second, it was 53%. "Generally as we age, the connections [in the brain] deteriorate," says Benjamin Trotter, lead author of the study. "But with those people with blast exposure it appears as though it's happening faster."
Many of those analyzed say they've never experienced concussion-like symptoms (like headaches, dizziness, loss of consciousness), or did only for a while. Now, the TBI diagnoses raise fears that a large group of Americans could get Alzheimer's or dementia ten years earlier than expected: "This would have tremendous consequences for society," says a study co-author. "We would have to figure out on a much larger scale ways of taking care of people." For 41-year-old veteran John Cove—an Army reservist who suffered a concussion in a 2008 training exercise—mental decline is already a concern: "I'm already starting to have memory loss," he says. "I get angry. I get frustrated. I have outbursts. I'm on medication to help me with my moods." (Meanwhile, Vietnam veterans are still battling PTSD.)