Campus & Community

Depression is bad for the heart

3 min read

And heart disease can be depressing

Depression is more likely to break your heart than smoking or eating fatty food.

“Recurrence of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks, strokes, cardiac arrest, severe chest pain and other problems is more closely linked to depression than to high cholesterol, smoking, high blood pressure, or diabetes,” according to a Harvard Medical School publication.

An article printed in the February 2006 issue of Harvard Mental Health Letter points out that patients who are depressed at the time of hospitalization for heart conditions “are two to four times more likely than average to die or to suffer further cardiovascular events during the following year.”

And, just as sad, “about 50 percent of patients hospitalized with coronary heart disease have some depressive symptoms, and up to 20 percent develop major depression.”

Depressed people who also are anxious add to their problems. According to one recent study, whereas depression doubles the risk of heart problems recurring, anxiety triples that risk.

It’s not unusual for depressed people to suffer from anxiety. The two go together like pretzels and beer, so well that scientists have given it a new name – the Type D (for distressed) personality. Such people are chronically gloomy, worried, pessimistic, and lack self-assurance. The Harvard article mentions research in Belgium that found that “over a 10-year- period, patients in a cardiac rehabilitation program were three times as likely to die or have a second heart attack if they had this kind of personality.”

Why does this happen? The Harvard publication notes that your mind and mood can push you into a chronic state of emergency readiness. Such people are ready to fight or run even when there’s nothing to fight about or run from. In real emergencies, stress hormones rise, blood vessels constrict, your heart speeds up, appetite slackens, and it’s harder to fall asleep. Inflammatory chemicals increase in the blood, which becomes stickier in anticipation of wounds that will need healing. When the scare ends, this red alert shuts down – unless you are seriously depressed or anxious.

Then, stress hormones stay jacked up. Inflammation may damage the lining of your arteries. Blood vessels become less flexible. The heart responds more sluggishly to internal signals telling it to slow down as the body’s demands change.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what happens. As the article notes, “cause and effect are difficult to disentangle in the relationship between depression and heart disease.” Vicious cycles arise. Depression damages the heart and blood vessels, and that causes further depression.