Family Health: Heart disease, depression a two-way street

It’s no surprise that people with heart disease can feel depressed – it’s a life-changing diagnosis. But research now suggests that the relationship between depression and heart disease goes both ways. Depression can raise the risk for another heart attack and also for developing heart disease in the first place.

If you’ve had a heart attack, your doctor probably recommended a course of cardiac rehab afterward. The exercises and advice about healthy lifestyle habits people get in rehab can lower their risks for another heart attack. In fact, anyone can lower their heart disease risks with these lifestyle changes, which include eating right, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and staying active.

The problem is, these habits are hard to start and maintain even when your mood is good. For people with depression, going for a walk can seem like a major task and eating junk food may be the comfort that gets them through the day. Quitting smoking can seem impossible when you’re depressed. When you can’t leave these unhealthy habits behind, they can set you up for heart disease.

Depression, stress and anxiety also undermine your health in more direct ways. They can lead to high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, a weakened immune system and other health problems that add up to increased health risks overall, especially for heart disease.

As research continues to support a link between depression and heart disease, doctors are adding it to the list of factors you can change to help maintain a healthy heart. Even if you’ve already had a heart attack, these steps from the American Heart Association and other experts can help:

  • Recognize the problem. People with depression feel sad or hopeless most of the time, and have trouble with simple daily routines like getting up, getting dressed and making meals. They may not be interested in seeing friends or doing things they used to enjoy, and may think about suicide.
  • Get help. If you have symptoms of depression for two weeks or more, see your doctor or make an appointment with a counselor or other mental health professional. If that seems like a difficult task, ask a friend to make the appointment for you. Talk therapy and/or medications can help relieve depression.
  • Go for a walk. Even a small amount of exercise can help improve your mood, so try to get out and walk every day.
  • Try to get enough sleep. Keep your bedroom quiet and dark and maintain a regular bedtime, even on weekends. Avoid foods with caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and also stay away from alcohol and nicotine which can both interrupt sleep.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Eating right can lower heart disease risks, and it’s also associated with better mood. The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables and fish and minimizes red meat, is a good example. If you have heart disease, stick with the dietary guidelines from your doctor.
  • Stay connected. Spend time with friends, even if it seems hard at first. Tell someone you trust about your feelings – sharing can make a big difference. Try taking a class, in yoga, exercise or anything you’re interested in.

Depression and anxiety are among the most common illnesses in the U.S, especially in people who have serous conditions like heart disease. About one-third of people who have had a heart attack experience some depression afterward. To learn more about depression and your heart, visit the American Heart Association at heart.org.