Female veterans at greater risk for mental illness, heart disease, and cancers than civilian women

Female veterans at greater risk for mental illness, heart disease, and cancers than civilian women
About the Author

Gina Harkins is MOAA's Senior Digital Content Manager. She can be reached at ginah@moaa.org. Follow her on Twitter at: @ginaaharkins.

Women who've served in the military are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and other problems according to a new study looking at the health of female veterans. 

Female vets report higher rates of cancer, mental illness, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and depression when compared to women with no military experience, the Health of Women Who Have Served Report found. MOAA teamed with United Health Foundation to produce the report.

More than 8 percent of the female veterans surveyed over a four-year period reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year - nearly twice that of their civilian counterparts. About a third reported arthritis, compared to about 26 percent of civilian women. Other findings include: 

  • About 13 percent of women who served had cancer, compared with roughly 11 percent of women who did not.
  • Nearly 42 percent reported getting insufficient sleep, compared to 34 percent of civilian women.
  • About a third of female veterans reported mental illness in the last year, compared to about 22 percent of women who didn't serve. 

Members of Congress, VA officials, and other leaders met in Washington Thursday to discuss the study's findings.

“The focus of the study released today is so incredibly important and so needed,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a retired Army officer who lost her legs in Iraq. “That data is missing in the health care and scientific world in terms of the research and analysis of female vets. People talk about it, but actual reports like this one are so rare.”

There are about 2 million female veterans and another 200,000 women on active duty, according to the report. Since 2000, there's been a 30 percent increase in the number of women who've joined the military, said Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), who serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. 

“While we have made improvements, the VA remains ill-prepared to deal with growing number of women veterans whose mental and physical health care needs can be different from their male peers and from civilian women,” Brownley said. 

The data on female veterans from the MOAA-United Health Foundation study, Brownley added, will help congressional veterans committees set new policy that benefits them.   

Dr. Patricia Hayes, the VA's chief consultant for women veterans' health, said the study's findings were consistent with what she sees in her female patients. Despite facing some higher rates of health problems, female veterans show tremendous resilience. 

That's likely why 56.4 percent of female vets reported being in very good or excellent health compared to civilian women, according to the study. 

“There's an attitude of 'I'm feeling pretty OK and healthy and functional,' even in light of the trends and similar data showing higher [rates of certain health problems],” Hayes said. 

Starting a dialogue 

Now that there's data on some of the physical and behavioral health problems facing female veterans, it's important to research what might be causing them, said Capt. Kathy Beasley, USN (Ret), director of MOAA's government relations health affairs.

“We can't develop solutions until we know the root of some of the problems,” Beasley said. “We've got some cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and behavioral health concerns - significant disparities between women who served and their civilian counterparts. Why is that? What are the factors that are contributing to those outcomes?” 

The study on female veterans provides an opportunity for more research, policy changes, or better access to VA or community health care that will benefit female veterans, said MOAA President and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Ret).

It's important for health care providers to start asking more women if they've served in the military, Hayes added, especially if they're seeing doctors outside the VA in their communities. If female veterans are at higher risk for some cancers, heart disease, or depression, doctors need to ask them the right questions and test them for some conditions earlier than they test women who didn't serve. 

That applies to male veterans, too, Hayes said. If doctors know someone served in the military, it will help them better understand their health challenges. That's one reason it benefits veterans to go to the VA for at least some of their health care, said Deputy Secretary of the VA Thomas Bowman, a retired Marine Corps officer. 

Bowman said he's dedicated to ensuring VA health facilities are providing good care to women. His sister served in the Air Force, he said, and she's been candid with him about some of the VA's shortcomings when it comes to treating women. 

“We want to make sure that women vets will choose VA for their health care,” Bowman said. “We've made significant strides, but we can't give up on that, and we're not going to.

“I think this study helps focus VA and some of its activities,” Bowman said.


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