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Uncovering a link between antidepressants and lowering heart disease risk

New research is investigating if some antidepressants affect blood cholesterol and blood clotting, which could inform treatments for people with both depression and heart disease.

Heart disease and depression affect many New Zealanders with many people experiencing both at the same time. The two are strongly linked but the underlying mechanisms for this connection are not well understood. 

University of Otago Professor Sally McCormick has been awarded funding by the Heart Foundation for a three-year project which will investigate if certain antidepressants have protective effects on the heart and are therefore suited as a dual treatment for reducing heart disease risk and treating depression. 

She will research the cardiovascular effects of serotonin-based antidepressants, including their effect on ‘blood fats' (plasma lipids) and their blood clotting properties. 

The project builds on a recent discovery by Sally and her team that uncovered a potentially important connection. They found that antidepressants promote the clearance of lipoprotein(a) – Lp(a) – a heart disease lipid risk factor, as well as upregulating processes involved in the breakdown of blood clots. 

Now the team can investigate this in greater depth. The new research will also examine if serotonin-based antidepressants can alter the clearance of other lipid risk factors – low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – which are the two main types of blood cholesterol. This study will further explore whether antidepressants can enhance the dissolution of blood clots, which would reduce the risk of events like heart attacks or strokes. 

Dual treatment for depression and heart disease risk

Outcomes from this research may provide important new information for both cardiovascular and psychiatric medicine. "An ideal outcome would be confirming two favourable effects with one drug," explains Sally.  

Results from the study will hopefully lead to a clinical trial on the effects of antidepressants on lipid and blood clotting risk factors for heart disease.  

This could help inform which antidepressants are best for people who have both depression and heart disease, or as a dual treatment for reducing heart disease risk in people with depression. 

"If we could treat depression and reduce the risk of heart disease at the same time, it will hugely improve people's well-being and reduce the stress of living with both conditions," says Sally. 

"This important funding from the Heart Foundation enables us to build on our initial discovery and move one step closer to a clinical trial."