Depression during or after pregnancy may increase the risk of heart disease

Women who have experienced perinatal depression are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease in the following 20 years compared to women who have given birth without experiencing perinatal depression according to new research.

The research was by Dr Emma Bränn, Dr Donghao Lu and colleagues from the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. Dr Lu said: “Our research group has already found that perinatal depression is linked to an increased risk of several other health issues, including premenstrual disorders, autoimmune disorders and suicidal behaviour, as well as premature death.

“Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death globally and there has been an ongoing discussion about including reproductive health when assessing the risk among women. We wanted to know if a history of perinatal depression could help predict cardiovascular disease risk.”

The study was based on the Swedish Medical Birth Register, which records all births in the country. The researchers compared 55,539 Swedish women who were diagnosed with perinatal depression between 2001 and 2014 with another group of 545,567 Swedish women who had also given birth during that time but were not diagnosed with perinatal depression. All the women were followed up through to 2020 to assess if they developed any cardiovascular disease.

Among the women with perinatal depression, 6.4 per cent developed cardiovascular disease compared to 3.7 per cent of women who had not suffered with perinatal depression. This equates to a 36 per cent higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Their risk of high blood pressure was around 50 per cent higher, the risk of ischemic heart disease around 37 per cent higher, and the risk of heart failure around 36 per cent higher.

Dr Bränn, the senior author, said: “Our findings may help identify people who are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease so that steps can be taken to reduce this risk. This study also adds to the established health risks of perinatal depression. 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. Our findings provide more reason for ensuring maternal care is holistic, with equal attention on both physical and mental health.

“It remains unclear how and through what pathways perinatal depression leads to cardiovascular disease. We need to do more research to understand this so that we can find the best ways to prevent depression and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers also compared the women who suffered perinatal depression with their sisters and found they had a 20 per cent higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

“The slightly lower difference in risk between sisters suggest that there could be genetic or familial factors partly involved,” Dr Bränn said. “There could also be other factors involved, as is the case for the link between other forms of depression and cardiovascular disease. These include alterations in the immune system, oxidative stress and lifestyle changes implicated in major depression.”