Untreated depression brings heart patients added risk

June 20, 2023 | by Ann Davis, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

Broken heart syndrome may be the most dramatic example of the strong connection between our hearts and our minds.

Some people experience this reaction, also called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, when they go through something highly distressing, such as the loss of a loved one. Although they’re not having a heart attack, their reaction to the news brings symptoms similar to a heart attack, such as chest pain and changes in heart rhythm.

A more common, but often underestimated, heart-mind connection is the one between clinical depression and heart disease, which can be a two-way phenomenon. Depression increases a person’s risk of a heart attack or coronary heart disease.

On the flip side, some people with no history of depression become clinically depressed after a heart attack or open heart surgery. Up to 15 percent of patients with cardiovascular disease, and up to 20 percent of patients who have undergone coronary artery bypass surgery, experience major depression.

The consequences of this connection can be grave, as reflected in results of an almost decade-long study presented at a 2017 meeting of the American College of Cardiology. The 25,000 study subjects who had coronary artery disease were twice as likely to die during the course of the study if they had received a diagnosis of depression, compared to people who didn’t. This heightened risk applied whether the depression emerged soon after the incident or a few years later.

That’s not to say that everyone is clinically depressed who experiences sadness and anxiety after a diagnosis of heart disease. It quickly hits someone that the diagnosis will affect their families’ lives as well as their own — medically, financially and in many other ways. Suddenly, the future holds a lot of unknowns.

Some people get through this and become ready to tackle changes to their lifestyle. They’ll take their medications, go to cardiac rehab and reach out for support when they need it.

Those with clinical depression, however, have a medical condition involving their neurotransmitters which can rob them of the energy and motivation to take these next steps. Yet, as is the case with many mental illnesses, some people don’t understand and tell them, "Just take a break, go to a movie and you’ll feel better." Conversely, they wouldn’t tell a diabetic to stop taking his medicine.

If you are a heart patient or at high risk of heart disease, talk with your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms of depression:

  • Sad feelings that continue for more than a few weeks after your heart attack, heart surgery or onset of another heart condition
  • Lost zest for life – avoiding activities you used to enjoy, or feeling like you’d rather stay in bed
  • Irritability, difficulty concentrating or an increase in negative thoughts
  • Eating and/or sleeping too much or too little

When left untreated, depression can worsen heart disease and increase the risk of heart attack. The good news is that there are a variety of treatments available — counseling, medications or a combination of both.

Ask your doctor about a depression screening, call Linden Oaks Behavioral Health at 630-305-5027 to schedule a free assessment or go online to get a free, confidential behavioral health assessment from Linden Oaks.

To find out if you’re at risk for heart disease, take an online HeartAware assessment. You can also call 630-527-2800 to schedule a heart scan or make an appointment online.

Learn more about heart and vascular services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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