RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Women who take antidepressant drugs have an increased risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD, sometimes called sudden cardiac arrest), according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. While this seems to point to the drugs as the likely offenders, researchers warn it may not necessarily be the case. SCD is not the same as a heart attack, in which a blockage in at least one of the coronary arteries deprives the heart of blood. During sudden cardiac arrest, the body’s electrical system to the heart is thrown off; heartbeats become irregular, and the heart starts beating dangerously fast, restricting blood flow to the rest of the body. Most SCDs are caused by arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms).
THE DETAILS: Researchers studied data from 63,469 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study and looked for links between self-reported depressive symptoms and sudden cardiac death. None of the women who were studied had symptoms of coronary heart disease.
The data showed that women with clinical depression—depression that makes it impossible to function—were twice as likely to die from sudden cardiac death. The researchers aren’t completely sure, though, if this means antidepressant drugs raise the risk of SCD, or if women who need the drugs tend to have heart-unhealthy risk factors like smoking, diabetes, and hypertension (all of which tended to occur among women with more severe depression symptoms). “It’s unclear why these deaths are occurring,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, American Heart Association spokeswoman and associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine. “People on antidepressants should not stop taking their medicines.” Previous studies have made a connection between antidepressant use and cardiac problems in people with heart disease, but this one looked at women who weren’t suffering from heart disease. It’s not clear if men taking antidepressants also have an increased risk of SCD, because this study focused solely on women.
WHAT IT MEANS: As troubling as these findings may be to the millions of women on antidepressants, the connection between antidepressants and heart health is unclear. One thing that’s certain, though, is that they’re not cause to suddenly stop taking antidepressant medication. If you’re taking medicine for depression, consult your physician before making any medication changes, and follow these strategies to help come to a decision and protect your heart: