Veterans' Health Prioritized
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When servicemen and women return home from deployment, they often focus on family, friends and getting acclimated to civilian life. What they often don't prioritize is their health. Returning from deployment and jumping back into civilian life can affect mental, physical and social well-being. Cooper Clinic Preventive Medicine Physician S. Michael Clark, MD, discusses common health issues in veterans and the importance of a comprehensive exam.
"As a part of their service activities, veterans are very used to regular physicals which are scheduled without them ever having to think about it," says Dr. Clark. "Once they're discharged, their health is something they have to think about themselves and often times, don't."
More than 450,000 United States service members were diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) from 2000 to 2021 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. TBI is defined as a disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or penetrating head injury. Veterans who experience TBI can develop other conditions including headaches, irritability, sleep and memory disorders, depression and the struggle to reintegrate to civilian life upon returning home. But TBI isn’t the only thing veterans struggle with.
Dr. Clark says many veterans he sees go from being fit as a part of their daily service regimen to unfit once they retire from the military. Service members are accustomed to high-intensity exercise while serving so, when they return and cut out physical activity, their health can dramatically decline. If they suffered an injury while serving, that can set their health back even further.
Once home, many veterans develop health issues typical in American culture such as:
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Poor cardiovascular health
- Glucose intolerance
Dr. Clark recommends veterans focus on three main health and wellness aspects once they return home from duty.
- Receive a comprehensive physical: Find a general internist or family physician to get some baseline numbers and discuss overall health.
- Screen for toxicity: Many servicemen and women have been exposed to heavy metals, chemicals, dust, pollutants and infections while away. A CT scan can identify any areas of concern.
- Consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist and fitness professional: Working with a professional can help facilitate a safe return to physical activity and help create a customized eating plan.
The sooner a physician knows what their patient is experiencing, the more effective the treatment plan can be. Dr. Clark recommends finding a local physician to build a rapport and trust with—especially someone who is experienced working with veterans and your specific condition. Specialty physicians are able to assess health issues and concerns such as TBI or other injuries. Today, organizations and health programs have been established to help veterans get the help they need to transition back to civilian life.
Boot Campaign is a non-profit health and wellness organization that works with evidence-based treatment and training organizations—such as Cooper Aerobics—to provide holistic care for veterans and aid them in returning to a normal life after sustaining physical and emotional injury from deployment. Each year, Dr. Clark sees veterans as part of Boot Campaign, providing a comprehensive preventive exam and helping point them in the right direction. Dr. Clark says, “I try my best to guide veterans throughout the process and make recommendations for where they should go next based on their exam. TBI, chronic pain and weight gain all have different treatments so it is important to really consider what the individual needs to improve their health.”
What to expect
Veterans who visit Cooper Clinic as part of Boot Campaign receive the same comprehensive preventive exam as other patients. However, since many servicemen and women have been exposed to environmental toxins, this often requires certain screenings to be performed at an earlier age.
"Our standard recommendation for someone with normal risk is to receive a CT scan at age 40 for males or age 50 for females," says Dr. Clark. "However, all veterans we see, irrespective of age or gender, have a CT scan due to these possible exposures."
Since many of the veterans Dr. Clark sees have also suffered TBI, Boot Campaign requires veterans receive extensive mental health and neurological evaluations, which are performed at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and The University of Texas at Dallas. There, they can receive the treatment and support necessary to live a better quality and quantity of life.
Sustaining neurological and other physical injuries means many veterans have been in and out of doctors’ offices frequently. Dr. Clark understands this can deter many veterans from stepping foot in a medical office upon return. Yet, he stresses the physicians and exam process at Cooper Clinic are likely to be much different than what they’ve experienced in the past.
"One veteran told me after seven years of seeing a handful of doctors, his visit to Cooper Clinic was the best experience he ever had," says Dr. Clark. "I believe it's because we are able to take more time to evaluate the whole person so we can better develop a health and fitness plan tailored to them."
If you know a veteran, Dr. Clark recommends you talk with them about their medical needs and encourage them to receive a comprehensive exam. To learn more about Cooper Clinic preventive exams, visit cooper-clinic.com or call 866.906.2667.