A new study investigating links between depression and heart disease has found that women aged 55 and younger are more than twice as likely to suffer from major cardiac problems if they have moderate or severe depression.

These cardiac problems include death from heart disease, heart attacks and requiring an artery-opening procedure.

Depression and heart disease are both more likely to be found in women than men.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that around 1 in 5 Americans are affected by depression. Females have higher rates of depression than males in every age group, with the highest rate being 12%, found in females aged 40-59.

The American Heart Association (AHA) state that heart disease is the number 1 cause of death in American women, claiming the lives of 1 in 3, compared with the 1 in 31 who die from breast cancer. Heart disease can also affect women of all ages.

Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, GA, whose findings were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that there could be a link between the two conditions.

The researchers examined 3,235 people with known or suspected heart disease who were scheduled to have a coronary angiography, an X-ray that can diagnose disease found in the arteries. The participants were assessed for the symptoms of depression, and follow-ups took place for around 3 years afterward.

Among the participants, 34% were women, and the average age of the participants was 62.5 years.

After adjusting for other heart disease risk factors, the researchers found the following:

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Depression is more likely to be found in women than in men.

  • In women aged 55 and younger, for every 1 point increase in depression symptoms, there was an associated 7% increase in the presence of heart disease.
  • If women aged 55 and younger had moderate or severe depression, they were 2.17 times more likely to suffer a heart attack, die of heart disease, or require an artery-opening procedure during the follow-up period.
  • If women aged 55 and younger had moderate or severe depression, they were 2.45 times more likely to die from any cause during the follow-up period.
  • In older women and men, depression symptoms did not predict the presence of heart disease.

Dr. Amit Shah, M.S.C.R., study author and assistant professor of Epidemiology at Emory University, focuses on the risk experienced by females aged 55 and younger:

Women in this age group are also more likely to have depression, so this may be one of the ‘hidden’ risk factors that can help explain why women die at a disproportionately higher rate than men after a heart attack.”

Dr. Viola Vaccarino, Ph.D, senior author of the study, notes that their findings are in accordance with a recommendation from the AHA in 2008 that depression be formally considered as a risk factor for increased heart disease risk, in the same way that diabetes or hypertension are.

Fast facts about depression symptoms

  • Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness and irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable
  • Fatigue and loss of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Sleeping problems
  • Eating too much or loss of appetite
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or actions
  • Persistent aches, cramps or digestive problems.

“Although the risks and benefits of routine screening for depression are still unclear, our study suggests that young women may benefit for special consideration. Unfortunately this group has largely been understudied before,” she says.

This study only examined individuals with known or suspected heart conditions over the 3-year duration, rather than making completely new diagnoses.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on another statement issued by the AHA, stating that gender-specific research has improved heart disease diagnosis in women.

The team is currently investigating whether women experience more cardiovascular changes than men in response to short-term mental stress.

Dr. Shah says that “all people, and especially younger women, need to take depression very seriously. Depression itself is a reason to take action, but knowing that it is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and death should motivate people to seek help.”

For further information on depression, access our Knowledge Center article on the subject.

Written by James McIntosh