By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters Health) – Survey responses from nearly 10,000 U.S. veterans show their chief concern in the first year after leaving the service – beyond work or social relationships – is their health.

While the veterans were largely satisfied with their work and social lives, most said they had chronic physical problems, and a third said they had chronic mental health problems, researchers report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Currently, more than 200,000 U.S. service members transition out of military service each year.

The period shortly after discharge often sets the stage for future issues, and addressing problems early may help veterans transition more smoothly to civilian life, said study leader Dr. Dawne Vogt, of the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University, in an email to Reuters Health.

“The current study shows that many veterans do very well in the first year after they leave service, finding jobs quickly and successfully reintegrating within their broader communities,” Vogt said.

Nevertheless, she said, with a significant proportion of veterans reporting health issues shortly after leaving the military, these issues “have the potential to erode their broader well-being over time if they are not treated.”

Vogt and colleagues surveyed nearly 47,000 veterans who had left the military in the fall of 2016; they received responses from 9,566.

This group was surveyed three months after discharge, and again six months later.

At both points, chronic health issues were the chief issue for roughly 53%, followed by mental health issues reported by roughly 33%.

The most common issues mentioned were chronic pain, sleep problems, anxiety, and depression. Most participants said their concerns over these issues had increased in the first three months after leaving military service.

Despite the physical and mental health concerns, most veterans said they were satisfied with their work and social relationships.

More than three-quarters said they were in an intimate relationship in the months after leaving the military, and nearly two-thirds said they were in close contact with friends and family and were involved in their broader communities.

Although over half of respondents found work within three months of leaving the military, the researchers noted a steady decline in the veterans’ ability to function well at work, which likely resulted from their health issues.

Compared to officers, enlisted vets were worse off in areas of health, employment and social functioning. And not surprisingly, vets who deployed to war zones had more health concerns than those who did not.

There were also stark differences by gender, with male veterans more likely to have found work than female vets at both time points. Male vets were also more likely to report problems with hearing, blood pressure and cholesterol, while female veterans were more likely to report mental health conditions including depression and anxiety.

Typically, funding from the VA and other organizations focuses on helping veterans find jobs, but Vogt’s team believes the results call for a “rethinking” of how veterans programs prioritize their resources.

Dr. Christine Elnitsky of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who was not involved with the study, noted that the survey had a low response rate. She said several other longitudinal studies on the transition and reintegration of veterans are in progress.

“The research needs to move to the next phase of being able to model and predict outcomes and evaluate interventions,” she wrote in emailed comments.

She pointed out that the study did not look at whether departure from the military was intentional or not.

“This is an important consideration in terms of health, social and employment outcomes,” she said.

Vogt’s team plans to analyze how veterans’ health and wellbeing changes in the second and third year after leaving service, as well as how their initial health status impacts their subsequent wellbeing in other areas.

SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, online January 2, 2020.