Depression is an insidious and often disabling condition that affects potentially millions of veterans. Characterized by constant feelings of sadness, low energy, sleep problems and suicidal thinking in severe cases, depression can dramatically reduce one’s quality of life.
The impact of depression on one’s ability to be effective at work and develop and maintain relationships with friends, family and significant others has been well documented and discussed for many years.
But one area that has received relatively little attention is the impact of depression on physical health.
In addition to being linked to high cholesterol, smoking and high blood pressure, depression also has been linked to heart disease. In fact, a heart attack as a result of depression can hit those both with and without a history of heart problems. Moreover, having depression increases your chances of dying within six months of having a heart attack by 20 percent.
The connection between heart disease and depression is not fully known, but its believed to be due to interplay between lifestyle and genetics.
Diabetes is a progressive disease that affects the body’s ability to produce insulin, which is responsible for regulating the amount of sugar in your blood. It’s been estimated that one in four patients receiving Veterans Affairs Department care has diabetes. Similar to heart disease, genetics and lifestyle choices play a role in the disease. So does depression. Specifically, depressed people are less likely to exercise and eat healthfully, which leads to weight gain. Increased weight, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle are risk factors for diabetes.
Progressive loss of mental abilities is a normal occurrence for most people over time. In fact, memory impairment is one of the most common complaints by elderly people. Neuroimaging studies have shown that brains of elderly patients with depression have deterioration in parts of their brains that are not present in nondepressed patients of the same age. Research also has shown that older adults with depression are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Although depression is not believed to cause cancer, it has been linked to poorer outcomes in those with various types of that disease. One leading theory is that depression reduces the function of the body’s immune system, which makes it more difficult to fight off illness.
In sum, depression is much more than an emotional disorder. It affects the bodies and brains of countless veterans. If you are one of them, get help now — not only for your emotional health, but for your physical health.
Bret A. Moore is a clinical psychologist who served in Iraq. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Names and identifying details will be kept confidential. This column is for informational purposes only. Readers should see a mental health professional or physician for mental health problems.