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Successful psychological therapy for depression may reduce subsequent CVD risk

25th April 2023

Psychological therapy that improves a patient’s depression could also reduce their risk of developing cardiovascular diseases in the future, according to new research.

In the first-of-its-kind study, published in the European Heart Journal, researchers retrospectively examined a cohort of 636,955 individuals who had completed the Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) primary care programme for depression.

Individuals were free of cardiovascular disease (CVD) before entry into the IAPT and over 45 years of age, with a mean age of 55. Some 58.6% showed an improvement in their depression. Regression models then estimated the association between improvement of depression and the risk of subsequent CVD events.

In fully adjusted models, those whose depression symptoms improved after psychological therapy were 12% less likely to experience a cardiovascular event than those who did not, over an average three-year follow up.

Indeed, improving depression symptoms gave rise to a significant lowering in the risk of any new onset of CVD (hazard ratio, HR = 0.88, 95% CI 0.86 – 0.89). This was true for coronary heart disease (HR = 0.89), stroke (HR = 0.88) and all-cause mortality (HR = 0.81).

This reduction in CVD risk and risk of death from all causes was higher in those aged under 60, with 15% and 22% decreased risk respectively. Those over 60 years of age had a 5% decreased risk of developing CVD and 14% decreased risk of death from all other causes.

The authors suggest that management of depression with psychological therapies might therefore reduce the risk of subsequent CVD, but more research is needed to understand the causality of these associations.

Long-term physical health benefits

Commenting on the study, lead author Celine El Baou, PhD candidate from UCL Psychology & Language Sciences, said: “The findings are important as they suggest that the benefits of psychological therapy may extend beyond mental health outcomes and to long-term physical health. They stress the importance of increasing access to psychological therapy to under-represented groups, for example minority ethnic groups who may be more at risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease.”

The authors also noted that previous studies have shown that people who experience depression are around 72% more likely to develop cardiovascular disease in their lifetime.

A study published earlier in 2023 also highlighted that depression and poor mental health among young adults is more likely to lead to premature CVD and suboptimal cardiovascular health. The researchers concluded that prioritising mental health might help to reduce CVD risk and improve cardiovascular health in young adults.

In 2021/22, 1.24 million referrals accessed the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme (now renamed NHS Talking Therapies for anxiety and depression) compared to 1.02 million the previous year, according to latest NHS Digital statistics.