Depressive symptom severity, stressful life events, and subclinical atherosclerosis in African American adults

Jessica Berntson, Purdue University


Prospective epidemiologic evidence indicates that both stressful life events (SLEs) and depression are associated with an increased risk of subclinical atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease (CVD) events. Even though stressful life events (SLEs) and depression co-occur and may act together to influence cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk, these psychosocial factors have been mainly examined in isolation. For instance, depression may moderate the relationship between SLEs and CVD outcomes. I hypothesized that depressive symptoms would potentiate the deleterious effect of SLEs on subclinical atherosclerosis. This hypothesis is plausible, given that depressed adults exhibit exaggerated and prolonged sympathetic nervous system, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and inflammatory responses to stress, which in turn could promote atherosclerosis. As compared to their nondepressed counterparts, depressed individuals may also be more likely to engage in maladaptive methods to cope with SLEs (e.g., increased tobacco use, alcohol use, and consumption of low-nutrient, energy dense foods), which could also promote atherosclerosis. I examined cross-sectional data from 274 to 279 (depending on the outcome measure) older, African American adults (mean age = 66 years, 67% female) with no evidence of clinical CVD or dementia who participated in the St. Louis African American Health-Heart study (2009–2011). Number of SLEs was assessed using the Life Events Calendar, a structured interview. From this interview, a continuous SLEs variable was computed (number of adult SLEs: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11+). Severity of depression symptoms was measured using the 17-item Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D). Two measures of subclinical atherosclerosis were obtained: carotid intima-media thickness (CIMT; assessed by ultrasonography) and coronary artery calcification (CAC; assessed by multi-detector computerized tomography). I conducted linear (CIMT) and logistic (CAC) regression models, first adjusted for demographics (age, sex, education) and then fully-adjusted (demographics; mean arterial pressure; low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C); hemoglobin A1c; BMI; tobacco use; diabetes diagnosis; and use of antihypertensitve, lipid lowering, antidiabetic, and antidepressant medications). No main effects of SLEs or HAM-D were found for CIMT or CAC. There were also no SLEs by HAM-D interactions for CIMT or CAC. Because the current results are largely inconsistent with prior literature and there is a paucity of studies utilizing African American samples, future research is needed to examine the independent and interactive associations of SLEs and depressive symptoms with measures of subclinical atherosclerosis. If the present results are replicated, it may suggest that SLEs, depressive symptoms, and their interactive effect are not cardiotoxic among African American adults.




Stewart, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Clinical psychology

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