A link between the brain and the heart

Have you noticed an older friend or relative feeling a little down lately? A link between the brain and the heart may shed some light on why the elderly suffer depression.

Eighty-five-year-old Margaret Hawkins always enjoyed life. After she lost her husband and two close friends, however, depression set in. “It’s something in your chest around your heart, and you think it’s anxiety,” says Margaret.

Duke psychiatrist Dr. Ranga Krishnan says Margaret is one of many older Americans who is suffering small, almost undetectable strokes inside her brain. “They were not identified as strokes clinically before because they did not affect motor movements,” says Dr. Krishnan. “In other words, they didn’t produce paralysis.”

These mini-strokes occur when blood vessels cut off blood flow to the areas of the brain which affect mood. The result is depression.

Dr. Krishnan is studying more than 200 patients like Margaret and has discovered none fit the profile for depression. Yet they all have classic signs of heart disease like a history of diabetes, high blood pressure and clogged arteries.

Dr. Krishnan says, “It just tells you, don’t treat depression just like a symptom. Don’t just give it a medicine and forget about the underlying medical problems that may be leading towards it.”

He also says medicines that help the heart may help the mind. So patients like Margaret take vitamin E and an aspirin a day.

Margaret Hawkins, “I’m not a depressed person. I’m a pretty happy person, and everybody I see now talks about how good I look.”

Researchers hope studying patients like Margaret will help them refine treatment for others. They believe vascular depression is so common, it could account for as much as 30 to 40 percent of all depression in people over the age of 65.

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