Women who are at risk for heart disease should pay attention to their mental health as well. Studies show a link between heart disease and depression. Women are particularly vulnerable to both.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. Depression is twice as common in women than in men. Women with depression are two to three times more at risk of heart disease than women without depression.
Depression and the feelings that often accompany it — anxiety, anger, stress and loneliness — trigger physiological changes in the body that can affect the heart.
“When a person is feeling stressed, the body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease and heart attacks,” says Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic and at the Scripps Women’s Heart Center.
Depression, like heart disease can be treated. It’s important to know the signs, symptoms and treatments for both and seek treatment when necessary.
“That is why it’s important to be under the care of a physician who understands the role of depression in women’s heart disease and considers their mental health and emotional wellness along with their heart health,” Dr. Uddin says.
Heart disease refers to conditions that can lead to a heart attack, stroke and other heart problems. More than 60 million women in the United States are living with some form of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Several medical conditions and lifestyle choices can put women at higher risk of heart disease, including high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, excess weight, stress and depression.
Knowing the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease can help especially in deciding when to seek medical care. Women tend to have more subtle symptoms compared to men, including fatigue, shortness or breath, neck or jaw pain and sudden dizziness.
Research shows that people with depression are more likely to have poor heart health. A study by the American Heart Association found depression could be a barrier to living a heart healthy lifestyle.
“Unfortunately, some of the symptoms of depression make it challenging for women to take care of themselves and make healthy choices,” Dr. Uddin says.
“Often, women with depression sleep too much or not enough, feel fatigued, have little interest in doing things and lack energy — none of which are conducive to sticking with a healthy diet or cardiovascular exercise program,” she says.
Other signs and symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling down or hopeless
- Poor appetite or overeating
- Trouble concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide
Women may try to deal with their depression through comforting but harmful behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol or overeating. In fact, women with high levels of depression are more likely to be obese or smoke.
People may also develop depression after being diagnosed with heart disease. Studies show that up to one third of heart attack patients develop some degree of depression.
More is being learned about the connection between depression and heart disease. But enough is known to raise awareness about the dangers of depression on heart health.
In 2016, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended depression screening for the general population, with an emphasis on people with heart disease.
“Thanks to the benefits of research and expanding clinical experience, we continue to learn more about the relationship between depression and heart disease, including the role depression plays before and after a heart attack or other cardiac problems, particularly in women,” says Dr. Uddin.
The Scripps Women’s Center provides heart care for women, by women. Our female cardiologists are experts in cardiology and integrative medicine and specialize in female heart disease. We’re dedicated to empowering women to take care of their hearts through education, lifestyle and, when needed, expert medical care.