Taking depression to heart

Research shows a link between mood disorders and heart disease. Getting treatment for depression can help reduce your risk.

Marie Plunkett, 62, got hit early in life with the double whammy of anxiety and depression. “I believe I inherited it,” she says.

As a girl, she was buffeted by tension between her mother and her alcoholic father. As a young mother, herself in a bad marriage to a man who was also an alcoholic, she fretted constantly about how to extricate herself and her four kids. But even after she divorced and found happiness with a new partner, she lived with the paralyzing press of anxiety every day. She worried about her now grown kids and her 15 grandchildren; she worried about work until she retired. And she worried about her own health. Her heart raced, she couldn’t concentrate, and some days she was so depressed she couldn’t get out of her nightie.

“You get to the point where you just don’t care anymore,” she says. But she refused her doctor’s advice to try medication to manage her moods. “I didn’t want to take pills,” she recalls.

Then, one spring day in 2006, she found out she had something new and very real to feed her anxiety. A cardiologist at Ottawa Civic Hospital told her that the tiredness and “funny feelings” that she had been experiencing in her left arm could, in fact, be evidence of coronary artery disease. A subsequent angiogram concurred, showing that her carotid artery was 90 per cent blocked. She needed to have it opened up and a stent inserted – fast.

“They said it wouldn’t have been long before I had a heart attack,” says Plunkett. At the same time, she got told that all those heart-wrenching years of anxiety and depression probably contributed to her heart disease. If she wanted to beat heart disease, she’d need to beat her anxiety and depression too.

Marie is lucky – she’s now a patient at the Ottawa Heart Institute and a graduate of its rehabilitation program where she learned about the intricate and deadly link between mood and anxiety disorders and heart disease. Through medication and therapy, she’s learned how to control her anxiety, relieve her depression and decrease her risk for worsening heart disease. “I didn’t know it was possible to feel this good,” says Plunkett.

In the last few years, evidence for the link between mood and anxiety disorders and heart disease has grown, and researchers now list depression and anxiety as risk factors for heart disease along with smoking, hypertension, obesity and others. Heart disease is responsible for one-third of all deaths in Canada and costs about $18 billion a year to treat; depression causes the most disability in the country and costs about $8 billion a year to treat. So recognizing the link between the two and treating both conditions together will make a huge impact on many lives.

The connection between the two conditions can be behavioural. People with mood and anxiety disorders are more likely to be sedentary and engage in activities that are bad for their hearts, such as smoking, alcohol abuse and overeating. But the link is also biological.