18 March 2013
Children who suffer from depression are far more likely to suffer heart problems when they are older, according to a new study which has assessed the long-term impact of the mental condition on young people.
The research, which was carried out by experts at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri, and scientists the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that teenagers who were depressed as children have a significantly elevated likelihood of being obese, smoking and generally leading a sedentary life, even if they no longer suffer from depression.
Although specialists have long known that adults with depression are more likely to experience a heart attack or suffer from other cardiac problems, it has not been clear when the general risk factors for heart disease combine with depression to increase this risk.
The study involved 201 children with a history of clinical depression, 195 of their siblings who had never had depression, and 161 unrelated children with no medical history of depression.
The children were followed from 2004 to 2011, between the ages of nine and 16, with the scientists assessing fluctuations in the rates of smoking, obesity and physical activity across all three groups of adolescents over the seven-year period.
The experts found that 22 per cent of the children who were depressed at the age of nine were obese by the time they were 16, compared to only 17 per cent of their siblings and just 11 per cent of the unrelated children.
Similar results were observed when smoking rates were analysed; a third of those who were depressed during childhood had become daily smokers by the age of 16, compared to only 13 per cent of their siblings and just 2.5 per cent of the unrelated group.
Finally, when physical activity was analysed, the 16-year-olds who had been depressed at the age of nine were the least active, with the members of the unrelated group being the most active and the siblings of the depressed children in the mid-range.
According to Dr Robert Carney, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University and first author of the study, the results are particularly worrisome considering previous research has suggested that adolescents who have these particular cardiac risk factors are much more likely to develop heart disease as adults, which has a further negative impact on life expectancy.
"Active smokers as adolescents are twice as likely to die by the age of 55 than non-smokers, and we see similar risks with obesity, so finding this link between childhood depression and these risk factors suggests that we need to very closely monitor young people who have been depressed," he advised.
Dr Carney said the results indicate that any history of depression in childhood influences the presence of cardiac risk factors during adolescence, even when statistical methods were used to eliminate other factors that could have influenced rates of obesity or smoking in the children suffering from depression.
"Depression seems to come first. It's playing an important, if not a causal, role," the expert expanded.
"There may be some related genetic influences that give rise to both depression and to heart disease, or at least to these types of cardiac risk behaviors, but more study will be required before we can draw any firm conclusions about that."
Posted by Jeanette Royston
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