Taking antidepressants raises your risk of dying prematurely by 33%

Depression – once described by the famous statesman Winston Churchill as a “black dog” that robs him of all colors – is a leading cause of disability worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that over 300 million people suffer from depression, which is characterized by long periods of profound sadness that interfere with a person’s normal, everyday functions. In the U.S., one out of six people will experience an episode of depression once in their lifetime, while 16 million Americans are affected by it every year.

For many people experiencing bouts of depression, taking prescription drugs is the usual method of treatment given by doctors, because of their so-called ability to regulate mood and improve a sufferer’s overall quality of life. However, a study by researchers from McMaster University in Canada found that instead of making their patients feel better, antidepressants – the most commonly prescribed drug for depression – can actually make the problem worse — even fatal. In particular, those who take antidepressants are 33 percent more likely to die than those who don’t use the drugs, and they are 14 percent more likely to suffer from cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attacks.

“We are very concerned by these results,” stressed lead author Paul Andrews, an associate professor at McMaster. “They suggest that we shouldn’t be taking antidepressant drugs without understanding precisely how they interact with the body.”

One foot in the grave

Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time that antidepressants have been linked to mortality risk. In a study published in JAMA, researchers found that more than a third of American adults use drugs that increase the likelihood of depression, while a quarter use medications that can lead to suicide. Certain antidepressants belong to the latter, as they increase the risk of developing suicidal symptoms.

Antidepressants, particularly serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, are known for their ability to block the uptake of serotonin, also known as the “happiness” neurotransmitter. This process allows serotonin to remain in the brain for extended periods — ideal for those who can’t produce enough of it, as well as those suffering from depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.

The researchers, however, found a flaw with this method of treatment. For one, as SSRIs continue to inhibit serotonin uptake, they disrupt the ideal levels of the neurotransmitter as well as other vital processes in the brain. In addition, major organs of the body — like the heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver — need serotonin for proper function. The use of SSRIs, researchers warned, also affects the serotonin absorption of these organs, and could lead to potentially fatal complications. (Related: Antidepressants burden users with extreme side-effects.)

To arrive at this conclusion, the team conducted a meta-analysis of existing studies on the matter from various journals and databases. This was done to identify a link between antidepressant use and mortality.

In total, 375,000 participants were included in the review. One of the factors that the team considered is the risk of cardiovascular conditions associated with antidepressant use. Aside from SSRIs, other antidepressant types were also included. They found that the risk of premature death from taking antidepressants was similar for all types of antidepressants.

Unfortunately, these risks directly affect healthy individuals, especially those in good cardiovascular health. Those suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease might find some benefit, though: Researchers noted that antidepressant use did not adversely affect people with pre-existing conditions, probably because of the drug’s blood-thinning properties.

As for co-author Benoit Mulsan of the University of Toronto, the findings presented in the report highlight the need for more research on how antidepressants work – and how they actually impact our health.

“I prescribe antidepressants even though I do not know if they are more harmful than helpful in the long-term,” he added. “I am worried that in some patients they could be, and psychiatrists in 50 years will wonder why we did not do more to find out.”

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