Medications prescribed to treat depression could have an additional benefit for cardiovascular health by reducing risks of heart disease, researchers say.

In a study by the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, researchers analyzed health information gathered on more than 5,300 Utah residents diagnosed as having moderate to severe depression.

Those prescribed antidepressants had a 53 percent lower risk of death, stroke or heart disease during the 3-year study than those not taking antidepressants or cholesterol-lowering statin medications. Taking statins, either by themselves or with antidepressants, did not significantly reduce such risks, the researchers found.

"We thought we'd see an additive effect -- that taking both medications would lower the risk more than either drug alone -- but we found that in the more depressed people, the antidepressant really was what made the biggest difference," says cardiovascular epidemiologist and study lead author Heidi May

The level of a person's depression seemed to be the key to the hearth health benefit of being on an antidepressant, the researchers said.

Antidepressant therapy did not appear to improve the heart health of people who had little or no depression, they found, but did have a significant effect on those diagnosed with more severe depression.

The study could not prove a cause-and-effect link between the use of antidepressants and a lowering of heart risks, but depression is a recognized risk factor for heart disease, says May.

Other experts say they agree.

"Clinical depression has been shown to have physiologic effects that are detrimental to heart health, as well as behavioral responses that lead to poorer outcomes," says Dr. Stacey Rosen if The Katz Institute for Women's Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

Improving a person's mood with antidepressants could lead to a series of behavioral modifications that could contribute to improved cardiovascular health, May suggests.

"For example, people who are having depressive symptoms may not be as inclined to exercise, practice good health habits or comply with health advice," she says. "Using an antidepressant to reduce depressive symptoms might ... help people better take care of their heart health."

Patients suffering from depression face at least twice the risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to those who are not depressed, and an estimated one in 10 U.S. adults suffers from depression, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What I take away from this study is that screening and treatment of depressive symptoms should be a high priority" when assessing patients with heart disease or risks of heart disease, May says.

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