Link between heart disease risk factors and depression is biological, not behavioral

Rice University
Office of Public Affairs / News & Media Relations

David Ruth

Amy McCaig

Link between heart disease risk factors and depression is biological, not behavioral

HOUSTON – (May 10, 2017) – Biology, rather than personal behavior, may be responsible for the link between depression and risk factors for heart disease, according to a new study from Rice University.

“Depressive Symptom Profiles, Cardio-Metabolic Risk and Inflammation: Results From the MIDUS Study” will appear in an upcoming edition of Psychoneuroendocrinology. The study examines how depression is linked to a higher incidence of obesity and metabolic syndrome, both of which are risk factors for heart disease. It also finds that biology may be responsible for this link. Blood tests of individuals with depression and heart disease risk factors showed the presence of an immune marker associated with increased inflammation in the body.

Rice researchers Diana Chirinos, a postdoctoral research fellow, and Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology, examined the mental and physical health of 1,085 participants, 56 percent of whom were female.

The researchers found that after they adjusted for socio-demographic and health behaviors, participants who displayed even mild depressive symptoms (such as trouble sleeping and a lack of energy) but did not necessarily have a clinical diagnosis of depression were 36 percent more likely to be obese than those who did not display depressive symptoms. Those people who had moderate symptoms of depression, who likely met diagnostic criteria for clinical depression, were 49 percent more likely to be obese and 57 percent more likely to have metabolic syndrome than people with no depressive symptoms.

The researchers hypothesized two possible reasons that depression may be linked to health conditions that are risk factors for heart disease. The first was behavioral.

“We thought that individuals who are depressed might be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as drinking alcohol, smoking and not exercising, which can lead to risk factors for heart disease,” Chirinos said. “However, this was not necessarily the case.”

The second possible reason hypothesized by the researchers was biological.

“After testing the blood of patients in the study, we discovered that depression creates an immune system response,” Chirinos said. “C-reactive protein, an immune marker that signals inflammation in the body, was found in the blood of study participants who displayed symptoms of depression and risk factors of heart disease, such as obesity and metabolic syndrome.”

Chirinos and Fagundes noted that in recent years, inflammation has increasingly been linked to heart disease.

The researchers hope that the study will encourage further studies of the link between depression and heart disease, and inflammation’s impact on the human body.

“We hope these findings will facilitate greater attention to mental health issues when treating metabolic syndrome,” Chirinos and Fagundes said. “Our future work will explore these links further in bereaved individuals, as well as in cancer survivors. Both of these populations are at high risk for cardiovascular problems.”

The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

A copy of the study is available online at Angie LeRoy, a psychology graduate student at Rice, and Kyle Murdock, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Rice, were co-authors of the study.


For more information, contact Amy McCaig, senior media relations specialist at Rice, at 713-348-6777 or

This news release can be found online at

Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews.

Related Materials:

Chris Fagundes bio:

Rice Department of Psychology:

Photo link:

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,879 undergraduates and 2,861 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for happiest students and for lots of race/class interaction by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. To read “What they’re saying about Rice,” go to

If you do not wish to receive news releases from Rice University, reply to this email and write “unsubscribe” in the subject line. Office of News and Media Relations – MS 300, Rice University, 6100 Main St., Houston, TX 77005

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.