In a unique depression research study just published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, a group of Norwegian and English researchers quantified depression's effect on mortality.
The Details: Researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway and King's College in London used what they call a "unique link" between the more than 60,000 people in the HUNT study (one of the largest and most comprehensive health surveys ever performed; HUNT is a database of personal and family medical histories, clinical measurements, and biological material) and a comprehensive mortality database. Their aim? To investigate the links between anxiety and depression and death. What their depression research found was startling: The risk for death due to depression (as defined by a 14-question test) was absolutely comparable to the risk of death from smoking.
What It Means: Depression is as deadly as smoking. Both are known risk factors for heart disease, after all. And people who are depressed and those who smoke both tend to engage in little physical activity, another known and very serious risk factor for heart disease.
Beyond the similarities with smokers, however, people with depression may be at risk because they don't seek help, or they fail to receive help when they seek it, say the researchers. Complicating matters further, doctors may be less likely to look into physical symptoms in people with depression because they may chalk up all a patient's symptoms to depression. Hopefully, this study with change that.
In the meantime, however, here's how to both protect your health from depression and protect your health if you're currently living with depression:
1. Actively work to reduce your risk.
"Depression is a huge risk factor for heart disease," says psychologist Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, director of Life Management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, "but it's both preventable and very treatable." Here, the three most important things Rossman recommends doing to prevent depression:
1.) Stay actively involved with relationships, activities, and work that are satisfying to you;
2.) engage in at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five days a week; and
3.) eat a healthy diet, filled with whole foods rather than packaged foods, and avoid excessive alcohol consumption.
2. Seek professional help if you feel that you're seriously depressed.
Don't tell yourself that it's all in your head and not a medical condition. "Speak with your doctor or a therapist to determine the best approach to improving your mood now and preventing further depression in the future," says Rossman. Consider all treatment options. "Regular aerobic exercise and psychotherapy have each been found to be as effective as antidepressant medication for the treatment of clinical depression, with better long-term outcomes," he says.
3. Don't ignore a persistent low mood.
"Often, making changes in just one or two areas of your life-for instance, by boosting your daily activity level-is enough to significantly improve your mood and avert a real, sustained depression," Rossman says. "I recommend working with a psychotherapist to help you overcome mild to moderate depression and develop skills for long-term happiness and success."
4. Take action if you feel a friend or family member is depressed.
"Reach out and let your loved one know you care about her," says Rossman. "Ask her to seek help from a professional, be it her doctor or a psychotherapist (psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker, or mental-health counselor). Let her know that help is available and that if she's willing to work at it, she can get better."