Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Can depression cause heart attacks?

Post Heart Attack Depression
Exercise can help stave off depression and heart disease, so why aren't you jogging right now?
Exercise can help stave off depression and heart disease, so why aren't you jogging right now?
Symphonie/Getty Images

A recent and frightening survey by the British Heart Association showed that four out of 10 people get their information about heart attacks from movies and television. But what could be a useful educational tool is doing more harm than good -- the Hollywood heart attack is a far cry from the real thing. Onscreen, you may see your favorite heartthrob dramatically clutching his chest and collapsing in a heap just before he can reveal the secret location of the diamond stash.

Heart attacks are different for everyone and symptoms vary. Central chest pain can happen, but it can also quickly shoot through your arms, neck and jaw. You may feel a dull, bothersome ache -- some people may not even realize they're having one. You could feel sweaty, short of breath, clammy or light-headed. It might feel like someone is squeezing or stabbing your chest. You might even think it's just indigestion.

Fifty percent of heart attack victims go on to experience symptoms of depression after their traumatic events -- 20 percent experience major depression [source: Pozuelu]. You may think you'd simply feel lucky to be alive, but it's a little more complicated than that. Maybe you're down on yourself for the years of self-abuse that led to your body breaking down. Maybe it's simply a grim reminder of your own mortality. What's important to know is that this is completely normal -- unless it persists for more than a few weeks. If you can't manage to snap out of it after that, then you may be headed for more trouble. The Harvard Mental Health Letter says that depressed patients admitted to the hospital for heart attacks are two to four times more likely than average to die within the next year.

Here's some scary statistics for you loners out there. Men who go home to an empty house after being released following a heart attack have twice the mortality rate of those who live with someone [source: Pozuelu]. And if you live an isolated lifestyle, rarely checking in with friends and family, you're more likely to die after recovering from a heart attack, regardless of what kind of shape you're in.

So far, cardiologists have been slow to jump on the depression bandwagon. One reason is the old chicken and the egg. Despite the research done so far, no one knows for sure which one comes first. Factors typically associated with depression definitely lead to heart disease, and being depressed after a heart attack seems to lead to further troubles. But only long-term research would get to the bottom of the whole thing. There's plenty of speculation and theories, but no hard biological evidence that depression causes heart disease and that treating depression reduces heart-related mortality.

Cardiologists are more inclined to use a physiological explanation than a behavioral one. And who can blame them? They're heart doctors, not psychiatrists. This is where you come in. Since we know now that depression could lead to heart trouble, take matters into your own hands. If you have signs of depression, see someone about it. Talk therapy is effective at battling depression, and new anti-depressant drugs are much safer for your heart than the cardio-toxic drugs of the 1980s. Exercise provides a double whammy -- fighting both heart disease and depression. If you're out of shape, bite off small chunks. Set reasonable goals like taking daily walks and build from there. Most importantly, don't isolate yourself from others -- reach out to friends and family for help. There's much more at stake than your state of mind.