Abnormal heart rate variability is one of the reasons why depression has a negative effect on heart attack patient outcomes.
They say treatments to alleviate symptoms of depression and correct defects in heart rate variability will offer the best hope for improved survival in depressed patients with coronary heart disease.
The researchers studied 311 depressed heart patients who participated in the Enhancing Recovery in Coronary Heart Disease (ENRICHD) study and compared them to 367 non-depressed heart patients. They followed patients for about two-and-a-half years.
"Depressed patients were nearly three times as likely to die during the study period as comparable, non-depressed heart patients," says Robert M. Carney, Ph.D., principal investigator and professor of psychiatry. "We also found that lower heart rate variability was responsible for a sizeable portion of that risk."
To monitor heart rate variability, patients wore portable heart monitors for 24 hours after their heart attack. Heart rate variability measures how the heart adjusts to varying levels of demand. In people with low heart rate variability, the heart doesn't make adjustments as quickly as needed.
"We have known for some time that depression increases the risk of death from heart disease, but we didn't know why depressed patients were more likely to die and whether heart rate variability had anything to do with the risk," Carney says. "This study shows it does account for at least a portion of the increased risk."