Purpose: Evidence exists of an association between pre-morbid lower cognitive ability and higher risk of hospitalization for depressive disorder in civilian cohorts. The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship of cognitive ability at conscription with post-deployment depression and the influence of (1) baseline factors: age, gender, and pre-deployment educational level, (2) deployment-related factors: e.g., war-zone stress and social support, and (3) co-morbid PTSD.
Methods: An observational cohort study linking conscription board registry data with post-deployment self-report data. The study population consisted of Danish Army military personnel deployed to different war zones from 1997 to 2015. The association between cognitive ability at conscription and post-deployment depression was analyzed using repeated-measure logistic regression models.
Results: Study population totaled 9716 with a total of 13,371 deployments. Low-level cognitive ability at conscription was found to be weakly associated with post-deployment probable depression after adjustment for more important risk factors like gender, education, and deployment-related factors [odds ratio (OR) 0.93, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.88–0.99]. The co-occurrence rate with PTSD was nearly 60%. When adding co-morbid PTSD as an independent variable, the association between cognitive ability and probable depression became insignificant, OR 0.95, CI 0.89–1.02.
Conclusions: Low cognitive ability at conscription is a risk factor for depression among returning military personnel, but unimportant compared to gender, education, and deployment-related factors. Part of this effect may be related to co-morbid PTSD. Use of cognitive ability score as an isolated selection tool cannot be recommended because of low predictive performance.