January 12, 2023
Valeria Martinez-Kaigi, Ph.D., MS Clinical Health Psychologist Tallwood Men’s Health Center As a clinical health psychologist, I spend a lot of time educating patients on topics that are important to their health—but often as a categorical surprise or shock. One such topic, particularly with male patients, is the true link between depression and heart disease.
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There is a two-way relationship between heart disease and depression.
Over the past 35 years, research has shown time and again that depression can contribute to heart problems. In fact, depression is now considered a major risk factor for heart disease, along with high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and heavy alcohol use (ie. 15 or more drinks per week for men). Meanwhile, the opposite is also true: After a heart event, people are more likely to experience depression. This tendency is so strong that after a heart attack or stroke, patients are carefully screened for symptoms of depression, often prescribed antidepressants and referred to a mental health professional. In other words, each case makes the other more likely. Unfortunately, once someone has both conditions, they are at greater risk of further heart problems, such as heart attacks and death.
The body and the brain are connected to each other.
If you’re wondering what one condition has to do with the other, you’re not alone. Many of my patients think of the body and the brain as two separate systems. I explain to them that, in fact, they are the same. The brain is connected to the spinal cord, which connects to nerves throughout the body. Whatever happens to your body also happens to your mind, and vice versa. As a result, depression is about much more than just thoughts and feelings. It is linked to a number of biological factors that affect the whole body, from increased stress hormones and inflammation to a weakening of the autonomic nervous system. This means that multiple pathways in the body likely contribute to the link between depression and heart disease. Psychosocial factors are also involved here. For example, someone recovering from a heart attack may not be able to exercise, work, or play with grandchildren—lifestyle changes that can lead to depression. On the other hand, people with depression often struggle to engage in physical activity. It can eventually lead to heart problems.
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For the sake of your heart’s health, take depression seriously.
There are serious consequences to depression, not the least of which is the health of your heart. If you are recovering from a heart event, treating your depression can mean the difference between a full recovery and long-term complications. For some patients, this means the difference between life and death. I especially want men to hear this message. Studies show that men are less likely to be depressed in the first place, And even if they do, they are unlikely to seek help. Which means they are more likely to ignore, for example, a mental health referral and doctor-recommended antidepressants. Getting treatment for depression is just as important as taking your medications for high cholesterol and blood pressure. We have plenty of science-backed treatments for depression, from talk therapy to medication. So if you think you might be depressed, or if you have a condition that could go along with it, talk to your healthcare provider today. When you take care of your depression, you take care of your health. Mental health is health.
Valeria Martinez-Kayeji, MD, PhD, is a clinical health psychologist at Hartford Healthcare Life Institute and Talwood Men’s Health Center in Fairfield, Connecticut. The Men’s Health Matters column highlights the health issues she’s seen affect men the most.