According to new research led by Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, almost 40 percent of the patients studied reported new or continuing symptoms of depression during the first year of the pandemic. In the long-term, such symptoms can increase the risk of developing heart disease.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of daily life. The interpersonal loss due to quarantining and social distancing, compounded with societal disruption has negatively affected mental health,” wrote the study authors. “Once established, mental health conditions can become chronic with having subsequent effects on additional risk factors and disease incidence, such as cardiovascular disease.”
The researchers studied 4,633 Intermountain Healthcare patients who completed a screening for depression both before and during the pandemic. The participants were separated into two groups: those with no depression or who were no longer depressed, and those who became or remained depressed.
The scientists found that among depressed patients, depression scores were higher during the pandemic than before it, and that depression was also associated with more ER visits for acute anxiety episodes, the odds of reaching ER for anxiety being 2.8 greater for people with depression than for those without.
“These findings are significant. In looking at the first year of the pandemic, we are already seeing the mental health effects on our patients,” said study lead author Heidi T. May, a cardiovascular epidemiologist at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute.
“We already know that depression raises a person’s risk for developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic health problems, so this is very concerning and highlights the importance of screening patients and providing mental health resources that they need,” she added.
A longer follow-up is needed to better understand the potential long-term effects of the pandemic on mental health and associated cardiovascular risks. “If people are becoming more depressed because of the pandemic, in a few years, we could see a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease,” Dr. May warned.
The study will be presented at the American Heart Association’s virtual 2021 Scientific Session on Saturday, November 13.