How Depression Affects Your Heart

On today’s show, I had the privilege of talking to Rosie O’Donnell about her recent heart attack. This experience forced her to recognize the signs of having a heart attack and to start protecting herself from the heart-attack risk factors that every woman needs to know.

Commonly known risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and family history. Furthermore, we now know that obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and stress also all play a role in the development of plaque in the arteries.

Rosie and I even talked about obesity during an exclusive interview on our show last year. While talking about serious subjects, she still used her comedic charm to make me and the audience laugh.

During that interview we also talked about another important health issue: Rosie’s history with depression. What many do not know is that depression also serves as a risk factor for heart disease. Unfortunately, the connection isn’t well researched. However, the research that does exist has shown strong connections between depression, mental anguish and early death.

Since the 1950s, research on connections between mental health and heart disease focused on personality psychology. What is it about one’s personality that causes him or her to wear his or herself down? The most widely known construct from this research is the type A behavior pattern, a “conglomerate of a hostile and hard-driving behavior, including competitiveness and chronic feelings of time urgency.” However, the results from this area of research have been highly inconsistent.

More recent studies have focused on specific psychiatric illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder. One 2002 meta-analysis assessed connections between depression and heart disease. While adjusting for risk factors like smoking and blood pressure, they discovered that having depression increases your risk for heart disease. In fact, individuals with depression have almost twice the risk of developing heart disease than patients without depression.

Another study even suggests that depression contributes to heart disease more often than passive smoking.

The reason for this connection is not clear. Some experts mention that people with depression are possibly more likely to have one or more of the other risk factors. In fact, research has shown that depressed persons are at greater risk of high blood pressure. Depressed persons are also more likely to smoke and be less physically active. However, most of the studies on depression and heart disease account for these differences.

Either way, depression is a problem that is not to be ignored. If you or a family member is suffering from depression, seek the help of a medical professional.

Here are some other things you can do to improve your mental health, help your heart and lengthen your lifespan:

  • Stretch it out! I do yoga every day. It keeps me calm, focused and fit. Exercises like yoga raises levels of endorphins, which relieves stress and gives your brain the feeling of pleasure. If you’re a beginner to yoga, try our Yoga in 10 series.
  • Take your omega-3s! Our body needs them to function. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids impact heart health by reducing triglyceride levels. However, in addition to helping the heart, it also helps with depression and low mood. Many psychiatrists recommend it for their patients for depression. You can increase your omega-3’s with a supplement or in your diet by eating more salmon, flaxseeds and walnuts.
  • Get more sunshine! Inadequate sunlight is a common cause of depression (called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD), which should be considered if your depression is worse in the winter. If you suspect a connection between depression and the time of year, you may benefit from a sun lamp. Talk to your doctor about this.