Unravelling the link between mental illness and heart disease

A Victoria University of Wellington research project has been awarded funding from the Heart Foundation to investigate the link between depression, anxiety and heart disease.

Bart Ellenbroek

Professor Bart Ellenbroek and his research team in Victoria’s School of Psychology have received $150,000 for the two-year study.

The team will 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.

While the close link between the brain and the heart is increasingly recognised, says Professor Ellenbroek, 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.

“Cardiovascular incidents are often followed by lasting signs of depression and anxiety. On the other hand, patients suffering from depression or anxiety often have cardiovascular symptoms. In fact, when patients with major depression or anxiety have cardiovascular symptoms, their risk of death is four times that of patients who have that mental illness and no heart disease.  

“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.”

The project was unveiled as part of the Heart Foundation’s new funding announcement of $1.8 million for heart research and specialist training for cardiologists.  

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.

“One in three Kiwis with a major cardiovascular illness suffer from depression. If we can better understand the link it will save lives and directly inform the care and support of the 172,000 New Zealanders who currently live with heart disease.”

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.”

Professor Ellenbroek’s research group focuses on why people develop certain illnesses, how genetic and early environmental factors interact to shape our body and our behaviour, and the interaction between the brain and the heart in relation to schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and autism.