Hopelessness and the Heart Attack: The Role of Depression in Heart Disease

Image for MI mortality article It's normal to feel down after a heart attack , but symptoms of depression can compound your recovery. Studies support that people who had heart attacks and were diagnosed with depression fared significantly worse than those without signs of depression. Other studies have tracked heart attack patients for several months after they left the hospital. Those studies found that the patients with diagnosable depression suffered more heart complications, including death. How does this affect you? It translates to better care if you have a heart attack. Depression and how to treat it are incorporated into the heart attack recovery process.

Identifying the Risk Factors for Heart Disease

In the United States, heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. To help determine who may need more aggressive treatment after a heart attack, doctors assess each patient’s risk factors. Most known risk factors center around complications of the heart itself or predisposing traits, like high cholesterol , smoking , diabetes and high blood pressure . Interest in the role of depression and mental health, however, opens up another avenue in the fight against heart disease and its complications. In light of findings of depression as a risk factor, many doctors now recommend that all heart attack patients be screened for depression, a move supported by the American Heart Association and American Psychiatric Association.

Finding the Connection

To understand why depression in heart attack patients may lead to worse complications, doctors look for common biologic patterns that connect the two. The current prevailing theory focuses on the balance of the actions of the nervous system. Part of the nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system, constantly regulates our internal organs without our awareness.For example, we don’t need to tell our lungs to breathe or our hearts to beat. The autonomic nervous system does these things on its own. But if the autonomic nervous system is off-balance, many normal functions of the body are affected. Scientists note that patients with depression have distinctive changes in the balance of their autonomic nervous systems. Some believe these changes may underlie the connection between depression and heart disease.If there is a biologic connection between depression and heart disease in people with weakened hearts, can depression also be a risk factor for heart disease in people with normal hearts? According to a medical review, this does indeed seem to be the case.

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