6 Things to Know About Depression and Heart Disease

Don’t ignore relationship between your heart and mental health

An African-American woman with depression and heart disease looks out the window.

Don’t ignore relationship between your heart and mental health

Heart disease is often associated with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and family history of heart problems. Depression is another condition to watch out for.

A growing body of research shows a relationship between mental health and 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 Christina Adams, MD, an integrative cardiologist at Scripps Women’s Heart Center.

Women are more likely than men to experience depression. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. In the age of COVID-19, heart disease can also put one at risk of severe illness from the coronavirus.

Here are six things to know about depression and heart disease.

1. Depression can raise risk of heart disease

Depression is a common mental health illness that affects millions of Americans. Researchers say even mild forms of depression and its symptoms can increase the risk of heart attack and heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends screening all heart patients for depression.

2. Depression can make it harder to recover from a heart attack or heart surgery

Just as depression can raise the risk of heart disease, the opposite appears to be true. Heart disease can raise the risk of depression.

Following a heart attack or heart surgery, a patient may experience depression. Studies show that up to 33 percent of heart attack patients develop some degree of depression, according to the American Heart Association.

People with depression also have a lower chance of recovery and a higher risk of another serious cardiac event or even death after a heart attack.

3. Depression can trigger physiological changes that increase heart risk

People with depression, anxiety or stress may experience certain physiologic effects that can lead to heart problems. Heart rate and blood pressure may rise. Blood flow to the heart may be reduced. The body also produces higher levels of a stress hormone.

“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,” Dr. Adams says.

People with depression may also have especially sticky platelets (the cells that cause blood to clot), high glucose levels and increased inflammation levels, which are risk factors for heart disease.

4. Depression can make it more difficult to care for your heart

It’s hard to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle when you’re depressed. “The symptoms of depression, including feeling tired and having a lack of interest in activities, can make it more challenging for people to take care of themselves and make healthy choices,” Dr. Adams says.

Another concern is people trying to deal with depression through harmful behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol or overeating. Women with high levels of depression are more likely to be obese or smoke.

5. A cardiologist who understands mental health might be best choice for you

Depression may be difficult to diagnose in some heart patients. Some symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, sleeping problems and low energy, can also be symptoms of heart disease.

A heart patient benefits having a cardiologist who understands the role of depression in heart disease and considers mental health and emotional wellness along with the patient’s heart health.

6. Treating depression can help decrease heart disease risk

In most cases, depression can be treated with cognitive therapy, medication or both. As people with depression begin to feel better, they may find they have more energy and motivation to make lifestyle changes that can improve their heart health.

If you suspect you or a loved one may have depression, or “blue moods” that last more than two weeks, seek medical help.

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