Ease Depression, Help the Heart

If you are depressed, here is good news. In fact, it’s one of the great health two-fers — treating depression can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

There has been little information on how treating depression affects heart health, but a study finds that overcoming depression greatly reduces the chance of having a stroke, heart attack, heart failure or dying.

The risk of heart trouble increases substantially if depression is left untreated.

In fact, successfully treating depression can reduce a patient’s heart risks to the same level as those of people who were never depressed, the study found.

More than 7500 patients completed at least two depression questionnaires over a period of one to two years. Based on their answers, they were classed in one of four ways: remained depressed, became depressed, no longer depressed or never depressed. Then they were followed to see if they had any major cardiovascular problems.

People who were no longer depressed showed roughly the same occurrence of major heart problems (4.6%) as people who were never depressed (4.8%). Those who remained depressed (6%) and those who became depressed (6.4%) showed a much higher rate of complications.

These results suggest two ideas: effectively treating depression lowers the risk of poor heart health, at least in the short term, and the risk of heart trouble increases substantially if depression is left untreated.

Heidi May, PhD, a cardiovascular epidemiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Utah and the study’s lead author, sees this as only a start: “What we’ve done thus far is simply observe data that has previously been collected,” Dr. May said. “In order to dig deeper, we need do a full clinical trial to fully evaluate what we’ve observed.”

The study did not look at what type(s) of treatments are most effective. Some of the results suggest that that worsening depression symptoms may cause immediate physiological changes in the body, which in turn cause major cardiovascular problems to occur. But it will take further studies to reliably show this connection and detail what processes are at work.

The practical lesson for patients and doctors seems to be to get depression treated. As Dr. May sees it: “The key conclusion of our study is: If depression isn’t treated, the risk of cardiovascular complications increases significantly.”

If you’re in the grip of depression, you may not care very much about your heart health right now, and it may be difficult to imagine feeling better. But there are many effective treatments available, and you’ll be glad for the improved heart health when things improve a bit.

The study was presented earlier this month at the 2016 American College of Cardiology (ACC) Scientific Sessions in Chicago.

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