"I think this study cannot be interpreted as showing anything other than that it confirms all the other research documenting impact of depression on [heart] risk," said Dr. Redford Williams, head of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.
Williams added that, although an older form of antidepressants, called tricyclic antidepressants, have been shown in past studies to raise one's risk for heart attack, these drugs have been largely replaced by a newer class of antidepressants, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.
Past research on SSRIs has shown that the risk of cardiovascular side effects is quite low. In fact, a study published in the November 2008 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that depression, not the use of antidepressants, was associated with a 33 percent increased mortality risk in heart patients.
"Most of these women were treated with SSRIs, I would suspect, and they are pretty free of cardiac effects," Williams said. "So my bet is that the finding means that women with more severe depression -- documented by needing [an] antidepressant [prescription] -- are at higher risk for [sudden cardiac death]."
But there's no need for depressed women to think they are doomed to an early cardiac death. Whang also suggested that depressive behaviors, rather than the actual depression itself, could be responsible for a great deal of the increase in heart risk for severely depressed women.
"We found that women with more depressive symptoms were more likely to smoke, less likely to be physically active, and had higher rates of obesity," Whang said.
For this reason, Whang suggests that severely depressed patients seek drug treatment as well as try to manage their cardiac risk factors, including smoking, eating healthy, and exercising regularly.
Most importantly, experts urged that women who are severely depressed should not discontinue the use of their antidepressant out of fear that the drug might raise their heart risk.
"The downside of this kind of story is that some people will stop taking their antidepressants because of the possible cardiac risk, which possibly is exactly the wrong thing to do," Leuchter said.
Instead, experts urged that women focus on eating well, exercising regularly, and trying to manage their anger and stress levels in order to bring their overall heart risk down.