Major depressive disorder, which occurs in about 15% of adults worldwide at some point in their life, is a staggering public health challenge. It’s projected to be the leading cause of global disease and disability burden by 2030, with an associated annual economic burden of more than $210 billion. Alarmingly, the number of people with depression has increased to around 30% during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The greatest increases have been in adults between the ages of 18 and 30.
In addition to depression’s effects on mood and behavior, people with major depressive disorder also have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Because of this, researchers are interested in understanding the specific ways in which depression negatively influences the heart and blood vessels. If we can better pinpoint how depression and heart disease are linked, then we can use strategies like medicine, more exercise and better eating habits to sever the link and reduce the risk.
Inflammation is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. In fact, inflammation in the blood vessels is the first step that leads to the development of plaque in the arteries. As plaque builds up in the arteries, they become stiff and less able to dilate—this reduces blood flow to vital organs. Therefore, many researchers, including in my laboratory, measure the ability of blood vessels to appropriately dilate (called “endothelium-dependent dilation”) as a sign of cardiovascular health. We have shown that endothelium-dependent dilation is significantly impaired in young adults with major depressive disorder, which has implications for cardiovascular health.
Interestingly, some researchers have suggested that inflammation is also a characteristic of major depressive disorder. Based on this, my colleagues and I conducted a small study published in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology to investigate whether an anti-inflammatory medication called salicylate could improve the ability of blood vessels to dilate in young adults with depression.
We showed that taking salicylate for four days improved endothelium-dependent dilation. These new findings suggest that inflammation directly harms blood vessel function, which could be one way that depression increases your risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in your life.
Although this was a small study, these results could pave the way for larger studies to see if longer-term anti-inflammatory treatment can prevent or slow blood vessel dysfunction and reduce cardiovascular risk in adults with depression.
Jody Greaney, PhD, earned her doctoral degree at the University of Delaware and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Pennsylvania State University, working under the mentorship of Lacy Alexander, PhD, FAPS, and Larry Kenney, PhD, FAPS. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Texas at Arlington. Greaney’s laboratory investigates the mechanisms and modulators of neurovascular dysfunction in human depression, with the ultimate goal of identifying novel therapeutic intervention strategies to prevent, slow or reverse depression-associated cardiovascular disease.