The NHLBI Women's Health Initiative (WHI) published a study this month reporting an unexpected relationship between antidepressant use and increased risk of stroke and death.
Previous studies from other researchers have found that the popular antidepressant drugs known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) do not increase patients' risk of heart disease, stroke, or death more than the risks posed by depression itself. In fact, the NHLBI's ENRICHD (Enhancing Recovery in Coronary Heart Disease Patients) Study has found that the risks may even be lower for patients whose depression is successfully treated with SSRIs.
The WHI study of 135,000 post-menopausal women demonstrated that women taking SSRIs are at increased risk of stroke, especially hemorrhagic and fatal strokes. Controlled for confounding factors, use of either SSRIs or tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) was associated with higher overall death rates. These findings, if confirmed, could affect treatment decisions for the millions of Americans who take antidepressants.
The WHI is an observational study and was not designed to diagnose depression or determine whether the prescribed antidepressants were enough to reduce depressive symptoms. The findings demonstrate an association, not causation. Independent confirmation in future studies designed to better capture manifestations of depression and use of medication, including antidepressants, is essential. The WHI researchers note that the findings must be weighed against quality of life and established risks of cardiovascular disease and mortality associated with untreated depression.