A Hidden Risk of Depression

Stroke risk doubled in depressed older adults even after symptoms disappeared

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Depression may affect more than your brain and behavior — it may also affect your physical health. Depression may raise the risk of a life-threatening condition in older adults.

A new study found that the risk of stroke in adults over the age of 50 may double when a patient has depression. This risk may remain high even after depression symptoms disappear.

"Our findings suggest that depression may increase stroke risk over the long term," said lead study author Paola Gilsanz, ScD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, in a press release.

Peter Strong, PhD, a professional psychotherapist, online therapist, specialist in mindfulness therapy and author of "The Path of Mindfulness Meditation," told dailyRx News that depression can affect the body.

"Chronic depression often leads to physiological changes that reduce the body's ability to control inflammation, which can lead to reduced health of blood vessels and increased plaque formation, which may increase the risk of stroke," Dr. Strong said. "Mindfulness meditation may provide a good long-term strategy to help reduce depression and the chronic health problems associated with prolonged depression."

Dr. Gilsanz and team studied more than 16,000 patients who had been enrolled in the Health and Retirement Study between 1998 and 2010. All patients were older than 50.

These patients were interviewed about symptoms of depression, stroke history and stroke risk factors. They underwent a similar interview two years later.

Nearly 1,200 patients said they had a stroke during this study's follow-up. The average time of follow-up after the second interview was nine years.

Dr. Gilsanz and team found that patients who reported depression symptoms during both interviews had double the risk of stroke. This was compared to patients who never reported symptoms of depression. Patients who had depression symptoms during the first interview but not the second had a 66 percent increased risk of stroke.

Dr. Gilsanz and team also found that the reduction of depression symptoms may not be immediately helpful.

"Looking at how changes in depressive symptoms over time may be associated with strokes allowed us to see if the risk of stroke increases after elevated depressive symptoms start or if risk goes away when depressive symptoms do," Dr. Gilsanz said. "We were surprised that changes in depressive symptoms seem to take more than two years to protect against or elevate stroke risk."

Dr. Gilsanz and team advised patients to seek treatment for depression early.

"Although we now know that depression strongly predicts stroke on par with many other major stroke risk factors, we still need research to understand exactly why this link occurs and whether we can potentially reduce stroke risk by treating depression," said study co-author Maria Glymour, ScD, of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, in a press release.

This study was published online May 13 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development funded this research. Dr. Gilsanz and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
May 13, 2015
Last Updated:
May 19, 2015