An elderly woman holds a 3-D diagram of a brain.
Stroke and depression can go hand in hand. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Depression can have a vice-like grip on the minds of many, with long-term effects often lingering for years between bouts.

But beyond the brain, depression can also have serious effects on the body, according to a new study.

A recent Harvard study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, tracked 16,000 people ages 50 and older, over a period of 12 years. The researchers found those with serious depression had a 66 percent increased risk of stroke, even two years after their depression subsided.

The study offers an important look into the connection between mind and body, said psychologist Jared Skillings, PhD.

“The length of time they studied people is very long, and that suggests the results are probably more important than studying people in a single year,” Dr. Skillings said. “They also studied 16,000 people. That’s a huge sample, far more than most studies.

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Know the 5 signs of depression

Catching depression early is important to long-term health, Dr. Skillings said. To recognize when depression is affecting you, Dr. Skillings said to look for five key indicators:

  1. Agitation
  2. Withdrawal
  3. Personality Change
  4. Poor self-care
  5. Hopelessness

“This clearly shows there is a link between our medical health and our mental health. Ultimately, it’s all heath. What this shows is that how your body functions is clearly linked to how your mind functions.”

The study asked participants a series of questions once every two years. Among the questions asked about their mood and life outlook during the past week were whether they felt depressed, felt everything they did was an effort, and how they slept.

If people answered yes to three or more of these questions, they were identified as depressed. The researchers also tracked whether or not they had a stroke during that 12-year period.

The result is a comprehensive look at an important segment of the population, Dr. Skillings said.

“This was only for people over 50, so nobody under 50 was included, and the average age was 65,” he said. “This is really a study about older adults. This stuff has never been studied in 20 and 30 year olds, so we don’t know if this would hold for them.”

What is clear, Dr. Skillings said, is that the key to minimizing the effects of depression is to catch it early.

“The data that is the clearest, is that if people that have severe depression, it doesn’t go away,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what racial group you’re in, or how much money you have. If you have severe depression, then it’s for a long time. If you have depression that gets to a severe level, your risk of stroke is high up to two years later. If you can catch it early, then you’re less likely to have these medical consequences.”