Partner Depression Common After Heart Attack

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Updated: 3/29/2013 2:27 pm

Aug. 22, 2012 -- When Linda Green recalls her husband John’s 2009 heart attack, her heart races and her hands get sweaty.

“It feels like posttraumatic stress,” she says. “I just relive it all.”

Though she says she held up well during her husband’s hospital stay, Green says she became anxious and depressed when the crisis was over and his recovery was under way.

Her experience is not unique.

Depression is common among heart attack survivors, and now a new study finds that this is also the case for spouses.

Depression, Anxiety Common in Spouses

When researchers compared the spouses of people in Denmark who had heart attacks to the spouses of people who had other major health issues, they found that the husbands and wives of heart attack patients were at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and even suicide after the event -- even if their spouse survived the heart attack.

Cardiologist and researcher Emil L. Fosbol, MD, PhD, of Denmark’s Gentofte University Hospital, says the suddenness of a heart attack may be a factor.

“These are usually events that come out of the blue,” he says. “One minute the partner may appear perfectly healthy and the next minute they may be critically ill or dead.”

The study was conducted using data from a comprehensive Danish health registry when Fosbol was a research fellow at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina.

The analysis revealed that more than three times as many people whose partners died from heart attacks were using antidepressants in the year after the event compared to the year before.

Spouses of people who survived heart attacks were 17% more likely to have a prescription for an antidepressant in the year following the event, whereas spouses of patients surviving other health scares were no more likely to be prescribed antidepressants.

The study appears today in the latest issue of the European Heart Journal.

Spousal Depression Often Overlooked

Worldwide, about 7 million people a year have heart attacks, and around 1 in 7 will die within a month of the event.

Fosbol says there needs to be greater awareness that partners as well as patients are at risk after a heart attack; they may need mental health screening and proper care.

“This study only looked at spouses, but certainly anyone close to the person who suffers a heart attack may be at risk,” he says.

New York City cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, who is a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, says partners of heart attack survivors may be reluctant to discuss their own feelings and needs.

“Heart attacks are life-changing events for both the patient and the family of the patient,” she says. “But we are so focused on the patient, we often don’t address the needs of the caregivers.”

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