THURSDAY, March 5, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- A new study finds that treating depression with antidepressants may have an added bonus: reducing heart risks.
"Screening and treatment of depressive symptoms should be a high priority" in heart patients, lead author Heidi May, a cardiovascular epidemiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, said in a news release from the American College of Cardiology (ACC).
The findings are scheduled to be presented March 15 at the ACC's annual meeting, in San Diego.
In its study, May's team analyzed health data from more than 5,300 people in Utah with moderate to severe depression.
People who took antidepressants alone had a 53 percent lower risk of death, heart disease and stroke over three years than those who did not take antidepressants or statins. Taking a cholesterol-lowering statin, either alone or with antidepressants, did not significantly reduce the risk, the researchers found.
The level of depression appeared to be key, May said. While antidepressant therapy didn't seem to boost the heart health of people with little or no depression, it did have an effect on those with more serious depression.
The study couldn't prove that the use of antidepressants helped cause a lowering of heart risks. However, depression is a known risk factor for heart disease, May said.
Her team also did not examine how antidepressants might prevent heart disease. But May theorized that as depressive symptoms ease, people's behaviors might change in ways that help their hearts.
"For example, people who are having depressive symptoms may not be as inclined to exercise, practice good health habits or comply with health advice," May said in the news release. "Using an antidepressant to reduce depressive symptoms might also help people better take care of their heart health."
One outside expert agreed.
"Clinical depression has been shown to have physiologic effects that are detrimental to heart health, as well as behavioral responses that lead to poorer outcomes," said Dr. Stacey Rosen, vice president of women's health at The Katz Institute for Women's Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
She said that screening heart patients for depression, and offering appropriate treatment, "should be part of standard approach to all those with heart disease or those at risk."
Barbara George is director of the Center for Cardiovascular Lifestyle Medicine at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. She said that, according to the American Heart Association, 16 million Americans are currently living with both depression and heart disease.
"A growing body of scientific evidence supports the association between depression and heart disease and, as a result, the AHA recently recommended adding depression to the list of more familiar risk factors [such as high blood pressure and smoking]," George said.
The new findings "highlight both the need to educate cardiology clinicians -- who are accustomed to managing their cardiac patient's physical needs -- to also be aware of how to assess and treat psychosocial needs, given the strong relationship linking psychosocial risk factors and heart disease risk," George said.
Experts point out that findings presented at medical meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about antidepressants.