20.04.2024

Treating depression using CBT therapy could help cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes

Treating depression through talking therapy could help cut the risk of heart attack and stroke in later life, a study suggests. Previous research has found those suffering with the mental health condition are significantly more likely to suffer from cardiovascular problems.

Now scientists believe that successful treatment of depression through treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could not only help the brain but also improve heart health.

In the new study, University College London researchers analysed data from 636,955 over-45s who accessed treatment via England’s national Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service, between 2012 and 2020.

The free service offers CBT, counselling and guided self-help, with sessions delivered either face-to-face individually or in groups online.

Treating depression through talking therapy could help cut the risk of heart attack and stroke in later life, a study suggests

Treating depression through talking therapy could help cut the risk of heart attack and stroke in later life, a study suggests

A questionnaire, which considers factors such as a lack of interest in doing things, issues with sleep and feelings of low mood, was used to measure depressive symptoms.

Researchers then linked the IAPT outcomes (depression scores) with patients’ health records to look for new incidence of cardiovascular events.

They found that people whose depression symptoms improved after psychological treatment were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease over an average of three years of follow up, compared to those who did not.

The study also suggests that improvement from depression was associated with a 12 per cent decrease in future cardiovascular disease at any given time, with similar results were observed for coronary heart disease, stroke and death.

The association was stronger in people aged under 60, who had a 15 per cent decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and 22 per cent decreased risk of death from all causes respectively, according to the findings published in the European Health Journal.

Those over the age of 60 had a 5 per cent decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and 14 per cent decreased risk of death from all other causes, researchers found.

Lead author Celine El Baou said: ‘This study is the first to establish a link between psychological therapy outcomes and future risk of cardiovascular disease.

‘The findings are important as they suggest that the benefits of psychological therapy may extend beyond mental health outcomes and to long-term physical health.

‘They stress the importance of increasing access to psychological therapy to under-represented groups, for example minority ethnic groups who may be more at risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease.’

Limitations of the study, funded by Alzheimer’s Society, include little information about lifestyle factors.

They suggest another explanation for the results could be that those who respond to psychological therapy had lifestyle behaviours that were more protective of cardiovascular disease.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘This study shows that successful treatment of depression using psychological therapies is associated with lower subsequent risk of heart and circulatory diseases, including heart attacks and strokes.

‘While observational, it provides further evidence that brain and heart health are connected, and that treating depression may have other significant benefits beyond improving mental health.

‘However, more research is needed to demonstrate whether the therapy is actually causing the reduction in heart and circulatory conditions, and if so, how.’

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