Depression: as deadly as obesity for heart disease

19 January 2017

Depression: as deadly as obesity for heart disease?

A recent study reveals that depression is almost as likely to cause heart disease in men as obesity.

Researchers in Berlin and Munich have come to this stark conclusion after comparing the major risk factors of heart disease, including the impact of smoking and high blood pressure. To learn more about how depression could lead to cardiovascular disease, and why, we take a look at this incredible research, below.

What is depression?

While most people will experience small bouts of loneliness, anger or anxiety at points in their life, depression is an illness that can makes sufferers feel persistently unhappy for long periods. The NHS estimate that one in ten people suffer with depression in the UK, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Similarly, studies have shown that about four per cent of children (aged 5 – 16) in the UK are anxious or depressed. According to the World Health Organisation, 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression.


Analysing data from 3,428 male patients aged between 45 and 74 years (over a ten-year period), scientists found that a depressive disorder had been diagnosed in roughly 15 per cent of cardiovascular deaths. For obesity and diabetes, this number is below 10 per cent, for smoking it is around 17 per cent. The same study also shows that male sufferers are almost as likely to develop heart problems as if they had high cholesterol levels.

Professor Karl-Heinz Ladwig, one of the scientists on the team, said:

“Our investigation shows that the risk of a fatal cardiovascular disease due to depression is almost as great as that due to elevated cholesterol levels or obesity.”

“Our data show that depression has a medium effect size within the range of major, non-congenital risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.”

Depression during pregnancy

There is something to bear in mind, however. Previous work shows that suffering from a serious cardiovascular disease can, in fact, lead to depression – confusing this research slightly. In comparison, a separate US research project showed exercise during pregnancy could help prevent new mothers suffering from depression.

Prof Lisa Christian, of Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, said:

“Levels change considerably across pregnancy and provide predictive value for depressive symptoms in women, as well as poor foetal growth. The good news is there are some good ways to address the issue. Antidepressant medications have been shown to increase levels. This may be appropriate for some pregnant women, but is not without potential risks and side effects. Luckily, another very effective way is through exercise.”

In turn, exercise could be used to help the one in 1,000 women who develop post-natal depression in the UK.

Benefits of exercise

It’s no secret that regular exercise can help to improve our overall health and wellbeing, but there’s also enough evidence to suggest that it could benefit those who suffer with depression. Here’s just a few things that are believed to happen when you exercise:

  • Reduce immune system chemicals that can worsen depression.
  • Increase body temperature, which may have calming effects.
  • Release neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids that make us feel good.
  • Gain confidence.
  • Take your mind off worries.
  • Gain more social interaction.

Of course, to feel the full benefits of regular exercise, you should also maintain a healthy weight and deviate from large amounts of alcohol consumption, as well as smoking.

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