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Men’s Health Matters: The Little-Known Link Between Heart Disease & Depression

January 12, 2023

Valeria Martinez-Kaigi, PhD, 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 crucial to their health — but often come as a surprise or flat-out shock. One such topic, especially with male patients, is the very real link between depression and heart disease. > Concerned about your health? Connect with a men's health expert

There is a two-way relationship between heart disease and depression.

Over the past 35 years, research has repeatedly shown that depression can contribute to heart trouble. In fact, depression is now considered one of the main risk factors for heart disease, right up alongside high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and heavy alcohol use (i.e. 15 or more drinks per week for men). Meanwhile, the opposite is also true: After a cardiac event, people are more likely to develop depression. This trend is so strong that, after a heart attack or stroke, patients are carefully screened for depression symptoms, and often prescribed an antidepressant and referred to a mental health professional. In other words, each condition makes the other more likely. Unfortunately, once someone has both conditions, they’re at a much higher risk for more heart problems, such as heart attacks and death.

The body and brain are connected.

If you’re wondering what one condition has to do with the other, you’re not alone. Many of my patients come in thinking of the body and the brain as separate systems. I explain that, in fact, they’re one and the same. The brain is connected to the spinal cord, which connects to nerves throughout your body. Whatever happens to your body also happens to your brain, and vice versa. As a result, depression is about so much more than simply thoughts and feelings. It’s linked to a number of biological factors that affect the entire body, from an increase in stress hormones and inflammation to autonomic nervous system dysfunction. That means multiple pathways in the body likely contribute to the association between depression and heart disease. Psychosocial factors are involved here, too. For example, someone recovering from a heart attack might not be able to exercise or work or play with grandkids — lifestyle changes that can lead to depression. On the other hand, people with depression often struggle to be physically active. That can eventually lead to heart trouble. Want more health news? Text MoreLife to 31996 to sign up for text alerts

For the sake of your heart health, take depression seriously.

There are serious consequences to depression, not least of which is your heart health. If you’re recovering from a cardiac event, treating depression can mean the difference between a full recovery and long-term complications. For some patients, it means the difference between life and death. I especially want men to hear this message. Studies show that men are less likely to spot depression in the first place, and even if they do, they’re less likely to seek help. Which means they’re more likely to, say, ignore the mental health referral and antidepressant their doctor recommended. Getting treatment for depression is just as important as taking your medication for your high cholesterol and blood pressure. We have lots of scientifically backed treatments for depression, from talk therapy to medication. So if you think you might have depression, or if you have a condition that could go hand in hand 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-Kaigi, PhD, MS, is a clinical health psychologist at Hartford HealthCare’s Institute of Living and Tallwood Men’s Health Center in Fairfield, CT. The “Men’s Health Matters” column spotlights the health issues she’s seen impact men most.