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Study to unravel heart disease and depression link

With one in three Kiwis with major cardiovascular illness suffering from depression, new research at Victoria University of Wellington will investigate the link between depression, anxiety and heart disease.

Study on heart disease and depression

The project was unveiled as part of the Heart Foundation’s 2017 funding announcement of $1.8 million for heart research and specialist training for cardiologists, bringing its total awarded since 1970 to almost $60 million. 

School of Psychology Professor Bart Ellenbroek and his research team receive $150,000 for a two-year study to test the theory that high levels of serotonin in early development increases the risk of depression, anxiety and heart disease – potentially unravelling why mental illness affects the heart.

Professor Ellenbroek says aspects of this study are a “world-first”. While the close link between the brain and the heart is increasingly recognised, there have been very few fundamental studies on the relationship that include depression and serotonin.

“If we are right then serotonin is a crucial link to both mental illness and cardiovascular disease so treatments that improve or prevent one, should improve or prevent the other,” he says.

“Cardiovascular events are often followed by problems with depression and anxiety. On the other hand, patients suffering from depression or anxiety are often at increased risk of cardiovascular disease,” he says.

“Currently, it is unknown exactly how these three disorders are connected. Our research will lay the foundation for new heart disease prevention, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society.”

Heart Foundation Medical Director Gerry Devlin says heart disease is still New Zealand’s number-one killer responsible for the deaths of more than 6,000 Kiwis every year – many of these deaths are premature and preventable.

“It is really important for us to understand and explore causes of the relationship between heart disease and serious mental illness. In addition, we increasingly recognise the role depression and anxiety play in patients not only following a heart attack but also living with chronic cardiac conditions such as heart failure,” says Devlin.

“Supporting exciting work such as this may lead to new treatment options by a better understanding of these mechanisms."

Professor Ellenbroek says receiving the funding is of “vital importance” to this research.

“While Victoria University supports the project with general infrastructure, including expensive specialist equipment, the project would not be possible without the generous support of the Heart Foundation.” 

The Heart Foundation 2017 funding round includes two Senior Fellowships, three Research Fellowships, three Overseas Training and Research Fellowships, two postgraduate scholarships, six project grants, one grant-in-aid, six small project grants, ten travel grants and five summer studentships awarded throughout New Zealand.

Find out more about our research grants