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Social Support Combats Depression in Heart Attack Survivors


WebMD Health News

April 24, 2000 -- Friendship and love are the subjects of many songs and poems, but they may do more than entertain us. New research shows that strong social support from friends and loved ones may help heart attack survivors beat the depression that commonly occurs in the year following a heart attack.

Previous research has shown that heart attack patients who are depressed are about three times more likely to die than their non-depressed counterparts, lead study author Nancy Frasure-Smith, PhD, writes in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. Frasure-Smith is associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal.

In the study of almost 900 people who suffered a heart attack, about 32% were diagnosed with mild to moderate depression in the week following their heart attack. During one year of follow-up, almost 8% of depressed participants died of heart disease, compared with just under 3% of the patients who were not depressed, Frasure-Smith and colleagues report. However, those depressed heart attack survivors who reported high levels of social support from friends and families were more likely to overcome their depression, they write.

"Those people with social support in their everyday lives -- a sort of psychotherapy of everyday life -- were more likely to overcome their depression," she says. "This gives us hope that interventions including better use of available support may be useful for depressed heart attack survivors," Frasure-Smith, also a senior research associate at the Montreal Heart Institute, tells WebMD.

Heart attack survivors should be encouraged to maintain social contact, she says. "If they withdraw from friends and family members, this is a warning sign of depression, and if it doesn't get better within one month, seek help," she says.

Robert Carney, PhD, a professor of medical psychology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, agrees.

"Patients with depression especially after a heart attack are at a significantly increased risk of [death] or second [heart attack]," he says in an interview with WebMD. "This has been consistent across studies. Depression in heart attack patients is important to identify and treat."

Common signs of depression in heart disease patients include sadness, difficulty concentrating, problems sleeping, loss of appetite, and significant weight loss, he adds.

"The most important thing is to identify it to the person and discuss it with them and then bring it to a physician's attention," he says. "A lot of patients tend to misattribute depressive symptoms to their disease."

For example, "a patient may say, 'I just had a heart attack so of course I am sad,' and this is one of the things that makes it difficult to diagnose," Carney tells WebMD.

Vital Information:

  • Heart attack patients who are depressed are more likely to die or suffer a repeat heart attack than patients who are not depressed.
  • In a new study, researchers found that high levels of social support from friends and loved ones helped patients overcome their depression, improving their outcomes.
  • Depression among heart attack patients may be difficult to identify and treat, but common symptoms include sadness, difficulty concentrating, problems sleeping, loss of appetite, and significant weight loss.

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