Using ‘talking therapies’ to treat patients with depression could reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, researchers have said.

A large analysis of 636,955 people over the age of 45 who accessed therapy through the national Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service found an impact on future cardiovascular disease and death from all causes.

To look at a possible link, the researchers had used the records from between 2012 and 2020, and looked at the IAPT outcomes measures through depression scores in relation to new incidence of cardiovascular events.

The team from University College London found reliable improvement from depression was associated with a 12% decrease in future cardiovascular disease over an average three-year follow up.

The association was stronger in people below the age of 60, with a 15% decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and 22% decreased risk of death from all causes respectively.

Those over 60 years old had a 5% decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and 14% decreased risk of death from all other causes, the authors reported in the European Heart Journal.

The authors also noted that previous studies have shown that people who experience depression are around 72% more likely to develop cardiovascular disease in their lifetime.

This is the first study of its kind and more research is now needed to understand the causality of the association found, the researchers said.

Study lead Celine El Baou, from UCL Psychology & Language Sciences, said: ‘This study is the first to establish a link between psychological therapy outcomes and future risk of cardiovascular disease.

‘The findings are important as they suggest that the benefits of psychological therapy may extend beyond mental health outcomes and to long-term physical health.

She added: ‘They stress the importance of increasing access to psychological therapy to under-represented groups, for example minority ethnic groups who may be more at risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease.’

Professor Tim Chico, professor of cardiovascular medicine and honorary consultant cardiologist at the University of Sheffield, said the study underlines the important link between depression and cardiovascular disease.

‘Although this link is already known, patients with cardiovascular disease often are not formally assessed for depression, while the risk of heart disease in depressed people is also often overlooked.’

He added: ‘The study does not prove that treating depression using talking therapies reduces risk of later heart disease, though it suggests that it might.

‘Although proving such a link would need a randomised clinical trial where depressed people are randomised to receive treatment or not, such a study is unlikely to be ethical.’

He said it would be interesting to understand the effects of the talking treatment on whether people whose depression was treated were more likely to be physically active, eat a healthier diet, take prescribed medication, and the impact on blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

He added: ‘Such effects might explain why treatment for depression could reduce risk of heart disease.’

In October, figures showed the number of people accessing talking therapy through the NHS had increased by a fifth.

In 2021/22, 1.24 million referrals accessed the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme (now renamed NHS Talking Therapies for anxiety and depression) compared to 1.02 million the previous year, according to latest NHS Digital statistics.

This article first appeared on our sister publication, Pulse.