Study Confirms Link Between PTSD, Cognitive Impairment

Fire truck displaying 911 signA study of World Trade Center (WTC) first responders has found a link between posttraumatic stress (PTSD) and cognitive impairment. The study’s results were published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring.

PTSD is a cluster of psychological symptoms deriving from a traumatic event. Cognitive impairment—which is linked to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia—can interfere with daily life, including work performance and social relationships. The study points to the possibility that trauma changes the brain in many ways, some of which are still not well understood.

The Link Between PTSD, Cognitive Impairment

Researchers screened 818 first responders between January 2014 and April 2015. The average age of first responders at the time of the study was 52.8. Using the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, the team tested first responders for PTSD and depression, gathering data dating back to 2002. First responders were also screened for current symptoms of cognitive impairment.

WTC first responders showed higher rates of PTSD, with 12.8% experiencing symptoms of cognitive impairment. An additional 1.2% showed signs of possible dementia. Both major depression and PTSD were associated with increased symptoms of cognitive impairment, even after adjusting for other physical and mental health factors.

First responders who had recurring symptoms, such as flashbacks, were more likely than others to experience cognitive impairments. Those with lower educational levels, older ages at the time of the trauma, a history of smoking, and occupations outside of law enforcement were also more likely to experience cognitive impairments.

The study’s authors say about a fifth of all WTC first responders eventually developed PTSD. Some first responders with PTSD also suffered head injuries, but the study found no association between head injuries and an increased risk of PTSD. The researchers say further research is necessary to determine whether an association exists.

Treating PTSD to Improve Cognition

Previous research has also linked PTSD to cognitive impairments. A 2010 study of veterans found that experiencing PTSD doubled the risk of later developing dementia. Although the latest study did not explore the effects of treatment on cognitive impairments, its authors highlight the importance of prompt treatment after a traumatic event.


  1. Clouston, S. P., Kotof, R., Piertzak, R. H., Luft, B. J., Gonzalez, A., & Bromet, E. J. (2016). Cognitive impairment among World Trade Center responders: Long-term implications of re-experiencing the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Alzheimer’s & Dementia.
  2. First study examines PTSD & cognitive impairment in World Trade Center responders. (2016, August 25). Retrieved from

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  • Tyffanie


    September 6th, 2016 at 4:47 PM

    awww this makes me sad

  • George


    September 7th, 2016 at 2:08 PM

    Early treatment for any illness is never going to be a bad thing.
    In fact, I think that the earlier the treatment then the greater the likelihood that there will be less damage done to the individual and his overall health.

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