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Do Antidepressants Increase Your Risk of Death?

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We know that antidepressants like Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac can increase risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in young people, and may increase risk for birth defects when taken in pregnant women. But could these drugs actually be associated with early death?

According to new research from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, they might. Analyzing data from over 1,800 critically ill patients who were placed in the intensive care unit (ICU), they found that those patients who had prescriptions for antidepressants and had been taking them prior to admission were 73 percent more likely to die—either in the hospital or within a year—than those who weren't taking the medications.

What are we to make of this study? Is there a certain population of people that shouldn’t be taking these drugs?

Patients Taking Antidepressants More at Risk

Researchers analyzed electronic medical data on over 10,500 patients, and found that 1,876 were taking either a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant, like Paxil and Zoloft, or a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), like Cymbalta, prior to admission to the ICU. These patients were 73 percent more likely to die within a year than those patients not taking antidepressants.

Researchers cautioned that the study results show a clear association, but do not prove that the antidepressants caused the deaths. Other factors, such as the depression itself, could have played a role.

Antidepressants Risky for Heart Patients?

Perhaps the more concerning outcome from this study was the fact that those patients who had coronary issues and were taking antidepressants faced twice the risk of death as other ICU patients. This isn't the first time we've been warned about a potential link between antidepressants and heart disease or heart related birth defects.

Researchers from Emory University found that men taking antidepressants were at an increased risk for atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke. Researchers collected data on over 500 middle-aged male twins. Sixteen percent were taking antidepressants, and of these, 60 percent were taking SSRIs like Paxil and Zoloft. Results showed that those brothers taking antidepressants had thicker carotid arteries—indicating artery narrowing—than did those brothers not taking antidepressants, regardless of the type of antidepressant used.

Lead author Dr. Amit Shah, a cardiology fellow at Emory, noted that since each additional year of life is associated with a small increase in carotid artery thickness, those brothers taking antidepressants were physically four years older than those not taking the medications. Shah theorized that the drugs could be causing blood vessels to tighten, leading to reduced blood flow and higher blood pressure.

Antidepressants Linked to Early Death and Health Issues

This study also isn't the first to draw a parallel between antidepressant use and early death. Research published in the British Medical Journal in 2011 found that older people taking SSRI antidepressants are at a higher risk of dying or of suffering serious health conditions, including stroke, falls, fractures, and epilepsy. Researchers at the University of Nottingham identified over 60,000 U.K. patients aged 65 and older with newly diagnosed episodes of depression, between 1996 and 2007. Patients were tracked until the end of 2008. Those taking SSRIs were more likely to die and suffer these other health issues.

Meanwhile, according to a report released in 2011 by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the rate of antidepressants used in this country among teens and adults increased almost 400 percent between 1988–1994 and 2005–2008. Many patients describe health benefits, but thousands have taken their complaints to court, bringing counts of negligence, design defect, and failure to warn against manufacturers they believed didn't do enough to establish the safety of their drugs. Studies like these seem to indicate that indeed, far more research needs to be done to determine which patients may be more harmed than helped by these medications.