Women who experience symptoms of depression, even without a clinical diagnosis, are at greater risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, according to a new Australian study led by The University of Queensland (UQ).
“These days, many people suffer from multiple chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer,” said researcher Xiaolin Xu, Ph.D., from the UQ School of Public Health. “We looked at how women progress in the development of these chronic diseases before and after the onset of depressive symptoms.”
The researchers analyzed data from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health which followed healthy, middle-aged women with no previous diagnosis of depression or chronic illness for more than 20 years.
The findings show that 43.2 percent of women experienced heightened symptoms of depression and just under half the group reported they were diagnosed or taking treatment for depression.
Women from the depressed group were 1.8 times more likely to have multiple chronic health conditions before they first experienced depressive symptoms.
“Experiencing depressive symptoms appeared to amplify the risk of chronic illness,” Xu said. “After women started experiencing these symptoms, they were 2.4 times more likely to suffer from multiple chronic conditions compared to women without depressive symptoms.”
The study suggests depression and chronic diseases share a similar genetic or biological pathway.
“Inflammation in the body has been linked to the development of both depression and chronic physical diseases,” said Xu. “Chronic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension, are also commonly associated with depression.”
The findings also help strengthen health care professionals’ understanding of mental and physical health.
“Health care professionals need to know that clinical and sub-clinical depression (elevated depressive symptoms) can be linked to other chronic physical conditions,” said Xu. “When treating patients for these symptoms, health care professionals must realise these people are at risk of developing further chronic illness.”
Women with both conditions were more likely to come from low-income households, be overweight and inactive, smoke tobacco and drink alcohol.
“Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and reducing harmful behaviors could help prevent and slow the progression of multiple chronic diseases,” said Xu.