Depression and the Risk for Cardiovascular Events

Depression is a risk factor for the development of coronary heart disease in healthy patients, as well as a predictor of adverse cardiovascular outcomes in patients with diagnosed heart disease. One-fifth of patients with coronary heart disease and one-third of patients with congestive heart failure show signs of depression. Many of these cases of depression are undiagnosed or untreated, but identifying and treating depression in patients at risk for cardiovascular disease can improve quality of life and improve cardiovascular outcomes.

A new study published in JAMA reports that treating depression through behavior modification — particularly physical activity — may reduce the incidence of cardiovascular events. The prospective Heart and Soul Study was conducted in San Francisco from 2000 to 2008, and followed more than 1000 outpatients with diagnosed coronary heart disease. Depressive symptoms were assessed using the Patient Health Questionnaire, and 199 patients were determined to show depressive symptoms at baseline.

Left coronary arteriesDuring the nearly 5 years of follow-up, 341 cardiovascular events occurred across both depressed and non-depressed patients, including heart attack, stroke, transient ischemic attack, hospitalization for heart failure, and death. Depression was associated with a 50% higher risk of cardiovascular events. The annual rate of these events was 10% in the group with depressive symptoms, versus 6.7% in the non-depressed group. After adjusting for severity of cardiovascular disease as well as comorbid conditions, depressive symptoms were associated with a 31% higher rate of cardiovascular events. Physical inactivity was associated with a 44% increased risk of cardiovascular events in people with depressive symptoms, though this association was not significant. The researchers postulate that patients with depressed symptoms are less likely to be compliant with medication regimens, or adhere to diet and exercise guidelines, explaining some of the increased risk.

While the association between physical activity and decreased cardiovascular risk was not statistically significant in this study, researchers theorize that cardiovascular risk could be attenuated by behavioral modification, including exercise. A combination of antidepressant medication and regular exercise may reduce the risk of cardiovascular events in patients with depression. Currently, a follow-up clinical trial is underway to evaluate the effects of antidepressants versus exercise on depression and cardiovascular risk factors.

While this latest study did not reveal significant findings in the relationship between exercise, depression, and cardiovascular disease, many studies show that cardiovascular risk is higher in depressed patients, as well as those with other mental health disorders. However, the appropriate identification and treatment of depression is challenging for health care providers due to the range of presentations and causes of stress. Mental health needs to be treated the same as traditional cardiovascular risk factors like smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. Treatment through medication, psychotherapy, or behavior modification may have significant benefit in reducing the morbidity and mortality of cardiovascular disease.


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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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