(CBS) Mood may not be the only thing that gets a boost from antidepressants. New research links the popular drugs to increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
In a first-of-its-kind study that involved more than 500 middle-aged male twins, researchers found that those who took antidepressants of any kind were more likely to have a thickening of the inner linings of arteries in the neck. Greater "intima-media thickness" is associated with heart attack and stroke, according to a written statement issued by the American College of Cardiology.
Previous research has linked cardiovascular disease risk to depression but not to antidepressants.
"There is a clear association between increased intima-media thickness and taking an antidepressant, and this trend is even stronger when we look at people who are on these medications and are more depressed," lead investigator Dr. Amit Shah, a cardiology fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, said in the statement. "Because we didn't see an association between depression itself and a thickening of the carotid artery, it strengthens the argument that it is more likely the antidepressants than the actual depression that could be behind the association."
Dr. Shah said the connection between heart health and antidepressants is poorly understood, adding that the medications may increase levels of chemical messengers like serotonin and norepineprine - which, in turn, might cause blood vessels to constrict or tighten, boosting blood pressure, a risk factor for atherosclerosis.
At a press conference held after results of the study were announced, Dr. Shah said antidepressant use appeared to "age" carotid arteries by the equivalent of about four years, Medpage Today reported.
Dr. Janet Wright, senior vice president for science and quality at the American College of Cardiology, told CBS that she was surprised by the finding but wasn't worried that antidepressant use might be a significant contributor to the nation's heart attack and stroke burden.
What's the take-away message for people taking antidepressants?
"They should know that the association between antidepressants and cardiovascular risk was mild but significant," Dr. Wright said."They should not stop taking their antidepressant but should mention this result to their doctor." In turn, doctors should carefully assess cholesterol levels, blood pressure, lifestyle habits, and other cardiovascular risk factors in patients taking antidepressants, she said.
Just as important, she said, depressed people need to be reminded that regular exercise can help prevent and treat both cardiovascular disease and depression - so that more cases of depression could be controlled through changes in people's habits rather than with medicine.
"If we could use daily aerobic activity through a behavioral change rather than with a drug," she said, "boy, am I ever in favor of that."