People who are depressed are more likely to develop heart disease than those who aren’t. It works the other way, too — people who have heart disease are more likely to lapse into depression than their disease-free counterparts.
The same association appears to exist between depression and stroke. This isn’t a huge surprise, considering that the conditions that cause heart disease — like clogged arteries and inflammation — also contribute to strokes. Still, researchers can only speculate on how depression contributes to these dangerous cardiovascular events or the biological disorders leading up to them.
Chinese researchers pooled data from 17 individual studies that included a total of 206,000 people who had experienced more than 6,000 ischemic (clot-caused) and hemorrhagic (bleeding) strokes. To weed out the possibility that strokes preceded depression, the researchers analyzed only studies in which people had a first stroke after being diagnosed with depression. After factoring out other characteristics that increase the risk of stroke — such as age, smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes — the researchers found that people with a history of depression were 34% more likely to have had a stroke than their nondepressed peers (Stroke, January 2012).
Whether your heart is healthy or not, see your doctor if you have signs of depression — persistent loss of interest in favorite activities, worrisome changes in sleep or eating patterns, and unexplained physical aches and pains. Reevised guidelines call for doctors to routinely ask their patients with cardiovascular disease or at risk for it about depression, and help them manage it if it occurs.
Singly or in combination, the most helpful treatments for depression are medications (specifically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), talk therapy, and regular exercise. Exercise tends to improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression.