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Women, Depression and Heart Disease

A distressed woman being comforted by a male companion.

The Risks for Female Veterans

By Tom Cramer, Writer, VHA Digital Media
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Are you a female Veteran who’s anxious or depressed? Then chances are you may be at a higher risk for heart disease.

Not exactly an uplifting thought, but it’s the conclusion of a recent study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University School of Medicine. The study appears in the Journal of Women’s Health.

“We found that midlife and older women Veterans with depression had a 60 percent greater chance of having coronary artery disease than those without depression,” said Dr. Megan Gerber, medical director of women’s health at the VA Boston Healthcare System. “And that’s regardless of whether they smoked or not.”

Cardiovascular disease kills approximately one woman every 80 seconds

She added: “We also found that with each additional mental health condition — say anxiety, for example — your risk for heart disease goes up by another 40 percent.”

Gerber and her team studied the data of 157,000 women Veterans over the age of 45 to examine the relationship between coronary artery disease and the presence of one or more mental health conditions. (Coronary artery disease causes a waxy substance called plaque — cholesterol deposits — to build up on the inside of your coronary arteries. These are the arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart.)

"Our study suggests that women may be able to reduce their risk for heart disease by getting the help they need for depression or other mental health issues, along with traditional health and lifestyle interventions,” Gerber said. “This is good news for women Veterans enrolled in the VA health care system. That’s because here at VA we’re focusing more and more on women’s heart health. We’ve also entered into a unique partnership with the American Heart Association.”

The researcher noted that VA is also increasingly focused on treating the whole person, not just a collection of symptoms. “This means that if we’re treating you for depression, we’re also going to be taking a close look at your cardiovascular health, the stress factors in your life and your lifestyle choices in general,” she explained. “Everything’s connected.”

Gerber noted that women in general tend to be nurturers and caregivers, prioritizing the needs of others and often putting their own self-care on the back burner.

“Women take care of their spouses and children,” she said. “They take care of their grandchildren. They take care of their aging parents or siblings who have fallen ill. They do this out of love, but it can make for a stressful life. Prolonged stress affects your mental well-being and, ultimately, your physical well-being.”

Dr. Megan GerberDr. Megan Gerber

The physician said she always talks to her female patients about the enormous benefits of exercise and other stress reducing activities.

“Women in the military have their exercise program automatically baked into their daily routine,” she observed. “But once they leave the military, routine exercise becomes optional and can sometimes fall by the wayside. That’s why I try to impress upon my patients the enormous importance of taking care of themselves…

“Good diet and regular exercise is a big part of that,” she said. “And so is emotional well-being.”

To learn more about health care and other resources available to women Veterans, visit

Need to talk with someone about how you’re feeling? Call the Women Veterans Call Center at 1.855.VA.WOMEN. All the representatives there are women, and many are Veterans themselves. They can connect you with the resources you need to start feeling better again.

Need immediate help? Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1) or visit