Depressed individuals have a shorter life expectancy than those without depression, in part because depressed patients are at risk of dying by suicide.1 However, we also have a higher rate of dying from other causes.2 Some researchers conclude that we may be more susceptible to medical conditions such as heart disease.3 I had an experience that might point to another cause that we need to address: we don’t treat many health issues because we think they are just symptoms of depression.
Last winter, I went through one of the deepest depressions of my life. It was very intense physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It was a beautiful experience, but that is for another article. The physical aspect is what I want to focus on here.
My physical experience this time was far more intense than any other depression. I was in tremendous pain throughout my body, but especially in my digestive track and chest. I was also completely drained of energy. It took a tremendous act of will just to get out of bed. It was so intense that I found myself reviewing my life in search of any other time that I had similar experiences.
In looking back I was reminded of two previous experiences where I felt so wiped out: my childhood rheumatic fever (a serious heart condition) and my heart attack. I became concerned that perhaps I was having more than just a depression and went to my doctor for tests.
I explained that I was depressed and was concerned with my physical health along with my reasoning for it. My doctor ordered a bunch of blood tests and sent me on my way. The blood tests all turned up fine, so I let it go for a while, but on further reflection decided that perhaps checking my heart made sense.
In the mean time I had switched doctors because it was my first experience with my doctor since moving and I didn’t feel there was a good fit. (I am talking about general practitioners here, not psychiatrists.) When I went for my appointment with the new doctor I clearly looked the part of a depressed person and made no effort to hide it. I related the whole story (as much as brief time would allow) along with my heart history and expected her to schedule an EKG.
What I got instead was a shock: she told me that I was depressed (shocking enough since I had already said it) and asked how many more tests do we have to do before I accept that my problem was just depression. I had to argue forcefully that my heart history is reason enough for prudence and that if it turns out that my heart is fine I have no problem accepting that it is “just” depression.
It was my wife Ellen who encouraged me to make sure I was not more than “just” depressed. She saw that I was physically far worse than what was normal for my deep depressions. Without her I might have blown it off myself. I cannot blame only the doctor for it since it made me realize that I too blame depression for issues that could have been something else.
If I had died from a heart condition would it have been another statistic that proves depressives have shorter lives? How many “real” conditions do we not address because we (and our doctors) blame it on depression instead of checking it out? Has anything like this happened to you?
Another issue, of course, is the side effects of medications, but that too is for another article.
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Last reviewed: 8 Jun 2011