The battle against depression is tough enough already without the added burden of physical illness. But unfortunately, depression can take a toll on the blood vessels…and a recent study has sounded a new note of caution about cardiovascular health. Since women are more prone to depression than men, I’m reporting on this new research not to create further distress, but rather to provide readers with the information they need to protect themselves.

We’ve known for a while that depression increases the risk for coronary artery disease, the narrowing of small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. But few studies have investigated a possible link between depression and peripheral artery disease (PAD), in which a buildup of plaque in the arteries reduces blood flow to the legs and feet. PAD patients often feel pain and fatigue in the leg or hip muscles when walking or climbing stairs…they also are vulnerable to hard-to-fight infections that can lead to gangrene. People with coronary artery disease are at especially high risk for PAD.

Researchers analyzed the records of 1,024 coronary artery disease patients, following the participants for an average of about seven years. Findings: At the start of the study, PAD was seen in 12% of participants who were depressed but in only 7% of those who were not depressed. Similarly, by the end of the study, new problems with PAD had developed among 7% of depressed patients but only 5% of nondepressed participants.

The chicken or the egg? Researchers aren’t sure which comes first, the PAD or the depression. Do PAD patients become depressed because they are in pain and aren’t as mobile as they would like to be? Or do depressed people find it hard to summon the energy and motivation needed to follow a healthy lifestyle, which in turn increases their PAD risk? Or is it a vicious cycle, with each condition contributing to the other?

Whatever the connection, the researchers believe that healthy habits—including a good diet, regular exercise, weight control, smoking avoidance and stress management—may improve both PAD and depression. So if you’re struggling with either ailment, talk to your doctor about the lifestyle and treatment options that can help you feel your best…both physically and emotionally.