Just over one in 12 U.S. service members who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had plaque buildup in the arteries around their hearts - an early sign of heart disease, according to a new study.
None of them had been diagnosed with heart disease before deployment, researchers said.
"This is a young, healthy, fit group," said the study's lead author, Dr. Bryant Webber, from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
"These are people who are asymptomatic, they feel fine, they're deployed into combat," he told Reuters Health.
"It just proves again the point that we know that this is a clinically silent disease, meaning people can go years without being diagnosed, having no signs or symptoms of the disease."
Webber said the findings also show that although the U.S. has made progress in lowering the nationwide prevalence of heart disease, there's more work that can be done to encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle and reduce their risks.
Heart disease accounts for about one in four deaths - or about 600,000 Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new data come from autopsies done on U.S. service members who died in October 2001 through August 2011 during combat or from unintentional injuries. Those autopsies were originally performed to provide a full account to service members' families of how they died.
The study mirrors autopsy research on Korean and Vietnam war veterans, which found signs of heart disease in as many as three-quarters of deceased service members at the time. Reuters