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A wave of new research suggests that depression and stress play a significant role in the development of cardiovascular diseases and that both factors should be considered when diagnosing and treating cardiovascular diseases.

Research from the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute tracked over five thousand patients with moderate to severe depression over the course of three years. These patients did not have any previously diagnosed cardiovascular diseases, and they did not use antidepressants prior to participation in the study. Overall, patients who took only antidepressant medications, as opposed to cholesterol-reducing medication only or a combination of antidepressants and cholesterol-reducing medication, had a 53% lower risk of death, developing a coronary artery disease, or having a stroke in the three-year period. Patients with moderate to severe depression who only took antidepressants also had lower risks of death and disease development; however, the combination of cholesterol-reducing medication and antidepressants had no added benefit. Researchers had expected the combination of antidepressants and cholesterol-reducing medication to have an additive positive effect, but the lack of such an effect suggests that depression may have a greater influence on the development of heart disease than other physiological factors, such as cholesterol levels that can narrow arteries, as seen below.

Clogged and narrowing artery caused by lipid deposits.

Image Source: jamesbenet

While a specific mechanism for why antidepressants were effective in lowering risk for cardiovascular disease could not be discerned, researchers did conclude that improving a person’s mood and behavior may play a much more significant role in heart health than previously thought. Since this study was mainly based on data from medical records, further studies will attempt to control for variables like amount of physical activity and other mental health factors.

Another study found that patients who experience both depression and high amounts of stress were 50% more likely to experience a heart attack or die by a cardiovascular disease. Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center studied over 4,000 adults, suggesting that while previous research proposed that stress or depression increase risk of death from cardiovascular disease, the more accurate picture may be that the combination of stress and depression actually leads to increased risk of heart failure from cardiovascular disease.

There are two key takeaways from these studies. First, when diagnosing and treating cardiovascular disease, stress and depression are two factors that cannot be overlooked. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, these studies are a reminder for us all to be mindful of our own stress levels and to seek out help if dealing with excessive stress and/or depression. Continued research in this field provides hope for more effective treatment and prevention of cardiovascular diseases in the near future.

Feature Image Source: Depression. by Mary Lock

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