Studies show a link between depression, social contact, and physical activity in patients awaiting a heart transplant

Heart patients should combine depression treatment with increased physical activity


People awaiting a heart transplant suffer from depression more frequently than others. This can have an unfavorable effect on the course of the illness. Researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) are investigating depression in patients with heart disease as well as the correlation with other factors, such as physical activity and social relationships. Their results indicate that measures to reduce depression and to increase physical activity can have a positive impact. For patients with severe cardiac disease, it is important to stay active to recover from the heart transplantation procedure and then to get back on their feet as soon as possible," said Dr. Heike Spaderna of the Institute of Psychology at Mainz University. "Based on the results of our study, we would advise patients to increase their everyday physical activity and at the same time have treatment for any symptoms of depression."

Dr. Heike Spaderna is principal investigator of the prospective study "Waiting for a New Heart," which is being sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The goal of this study is to identify the psychosocial and behavioral characteristics of patients that could, in addition to medical factors, influence the prognosis during the time the patient is waiting for a transplant. Collaborating in the study is Professor Gerdi Weidner of Francisco State University, DFG Mercator Visiting Professor at Mainz University, and Eurotransplant International Foundation.

As their surveys show, patients waiting for an organ donation have an increased risk of dying after one year or being taken off the waiting list due to a deterioration in their health if they are already suffering from symptoms of depression and social isolation at the beginning of the waiting period. On the other hand, patients not suffering from depression and who have a large social network of more than eleven friends or relatives have a greater chance of being taken off the list due to an improvement in their health.

Exactly 318 patients were surveyed, nearly 20 percent of whom were women, between the ages of 42 and 65 years, who were participating in the "Waiting for a New Heart" study being conducted in 17 centers in Germany and Austria.

A further survey of this group of patients showed that nearly 50 percent were physically active as part of their normal lifestyle. However, less than 10 percent played sports on a regular basis. Increased depression scores were recorded for 39 percent of the patients. "There is a link between the symptoms of depression and a lower degree of physical activity, a factor that we need to keep in mind with regard to the medical care of these patients," Spaderna explained. It is still unclear whether more physical activity means that there is a lower risk of becoming depressed, or whether the reverse is true, i.e., that depression inhibits physical activity. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking measures both to reduce depression and increase physical activity – both can be positive for patients with heart diseases. Their proposal is that activity programs that are tied to patients' everyday lives should be individually drawn up to replace the use of standardized exercise plans.