DOI: 10.1002/alz.075038 ISSN: 1552-5260

Association between military service identified through public data tracing and Alzheimer’s disease neuropathology at autopsy

Leigha H Vilen, Megan Zuelsdorff, Shahriar Salamat, Alexandra Pfaff, Robert A Rissman, Barbara B Bendlin, Amy J. Kind, W. Ryan Powell
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Neurology (clinical)
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Health Policy
  • Epidemiology



Military veterans face increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) compared to the general population, but the association between the military exposome and ADRD pathology is poorly understood. Existing biobanks rarely collect military service information, complicating efforts to characterize military risk factors. Public data tracing methods linking the military exposome to existing neuropathological data have the potential to catalyze research on the mechanisms driving brain health disparities.


Subjects were decedents from two Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center brain banks who died between 1986‐2018 and were characterized on neurofibrillary tangle burden (NFT‐B score, n = 1154). Military service was characterized through public data tracing (Figure 1): systematic extractions from public records including obituaries, newspapers, and enlistment records (Figure 2). NFT‐B score, per National Institute of Aging and Alzheimer’s Association guidelines for neuropathologic change, was extracted from the standardized Neuropathology Dataset form or from original autopsy reports. Generalized ordered logistic regression with site‐level clustered standards errors was used to model NFT‐B score, adjusting for age, sex, and year of death.


Public data tracing identified 373 decedents (32% of the sample) with a history of military service. After adjusting for age, sex, and year of death, decedents with a history of military service had a 12% greater odds (OR = 1.12, 95% CI: 1.11–1.13) of a more severe NFT burden compared to those without a history of military service, which was proportional when comparing the odds at each increasing B score level (B score = (1,2, or 3), vs (0), B score = (2,3) vs (0,1) and B score = (3) vs (0,1,2)) (Table 1).


Public data tracing offers a promising way to retrospectively add the military exposome into brain tissue biomarkers research. Military service was associated with more severe neurofibrillary tangle pathology, one of the primary neuropathological features of Alzheimer’s disease. Future research should explore the feasibility and validity of public data tracing for more detailed characterization of military service, such as length and branch of service, involvement in specific conflicts, or exposure to environmental toxins, which may elucidate mechanisms underlying its association with ADRD pathology.

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