Depression Around Pregnancy Could Take Toll on Women's Hearts

postpartum depression
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Key Takeaways

  • New research shows links between depression during and after a pregnancy and elevated heart risks decades later

  • Women with perinatal depression had higher odds for heart disease, heart failure and high blood pressure 20 years later

  • New treatments to ease postpartum depression might help the heart

WEDNESDAY, June 19, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Depression during or after a pregnancy could be tied to a heightened risk for heart trouble in women decades later, new research warns.

This so-called "perinatal" depression was linked to a 36% higher odds of developing heart disease within the next 20 years, reported a Swedish team led by Dr. Emma Bränn, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

She said the findings could open up new pathways to protecting women's hearts.

"We know that perinatal depression is both preventable and treatable, and for many people it’s the first episode of depression they’ve ever experienced," Bränn said. "Our findings provide more reason for ensuring maternal care is holistic, with equal attention on both physical and mental health."

The findings were published June 18 in the European Heart Journal.

In the study, the Stockholm team looked at the medical histories of over 55,500 Swedish women who were diagnosed with perinatal depression between 2001 and 2014, and compared those to another group of almost 546,000 Swedish women who had also given birth during that time, but were not diagnosed with perinatal depression.

They tracked the women's heart health up until 2020.

Any history of depression around the time of pregnancy was linked to higher odds for later heart disease. While 6.4% of women with such histories developed heart issues by 2020, that was true for just 3.7% of women who'd not had perinatal depression, the study found. That amounts to a 36% rise in relative risk.

Similar trends were seen with high blood pressure (a 50% higher odds among women with perinatal depression), and heart failure (36% higher odds).

The exact links between perinatal depression and heart disease remain unclear. One subset of the study -- looking at heart disease risks between women with perinatal depression and their unaffected sisters -- found a 20% higher odds for heart disease in the sisters with a history of perinatal depression.

“The slightly lower difference in risk between sisters suggest that there could be genetic or familial factors partly involved,” Bränn noted in a news release from the European Society of Cardiology.

“There could also be other factors involved, as is the case for the link between other forms of depression and cardiovascular disease," she added. "These include alterations in the immune system, oxidative stress and lifestyle changes implicated in major depression.”

Writing in an accompanying editorial, Dr. Amani Meaidi, from the Danish Cancer Society, noted that treating postpartum depression might now provide an added bonus for women's hearts.

"It was not until last year, in 2023, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral treatment for postpartum depression, making treatment much more accessible for the millions of women suffering from this condition," she wrote.

Mealdi said that "the future will reveal if proper perinatal depression therapy" ends up curbing heart disease rates in women as they age.

More information

Find out more about the signs of perinatal depression at the American Psychiatric Association.

SOURCE: European Society of Cardiology, news release, June 18, 2024

What This Means For You

Women who experience depression during or after pregnancy might need to be especially careful with their heart health.

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