Some studies have linked depression and anxiety to a higher risk of heart attack, but new research suggests that at least one major risk factor--atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries--doesn't appear to depend on how much depression or anxiety one suffers. Other studies are still needed, researchers say, to investigate how psychological factors might cause atherosclerosis, once established, to erupt into heart attacks.
Atherosclerosis develops as fatty debris in the blood sticks to the walls of arteries. This has happened in almost everyone who suffers a heart attack. Anxiety and depression can hike the risk of heart attacks; so researchers wondered whether such psychological factors somehow contribute to atherosclerosis.
To test this possibility, a team of researchers led by internist Patrick O'Malley of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., examined 600 Army personnel with no known history of heart disease. They used a scanning technique called electron-beam computed tomography to spot excess calcium buildup in the arteries--a marker for early-stage atherosclerosis. The researchers also gave the participants a battery of psychological tests to check for depression, hostility, anxiety, and sensitivity to stress. There was no connection between calcification and psychological characteristics, the team reports in the 2 November issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
This study isn't the last word on mental factors and early stages of heart disease, cautions cardiologist James Januzzi of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He points out that the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and heart disease was unusually low in the study group compared to the general population, so it isn't surprising that no connection emerged.