People who vape nicotine are twice as likely to be depressed as those who don’t, according to a study published Wednesday that sheds further light on an addictive product that has seen a dramatic rise in popularity.
Nicotine’s connection to mental health problems has long been established, but little is known about the mental health effects of e-cigarettes, a relatively new product that has faced little academic or regulatory scrutiny until the recent past.
The study, led by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and published in the American Medical Association’s journal JAMA Network Open, adds yet another item to the litany of concerns people have about vaping.
“At the very least,” lead researcher Dr. Olufunmilayo Obisesan wrote, “our findings warrant careful and thorough evaluation of e-cigarette use in both youth and adults with depression.”
Obisesan and her colleagues analyzed data about 892,000 people’s e-cigarette habits and depression history, gathered through federal surveys in 2016 and 2017. The researchers included information like people’s age, sex and education level in their study.
People who used e-cigarettes at the time of the surveys were more than twice as likely to say they’ve been diagnosed with depression, and people who used e-cigarettes in the past were 1.6 times as likely to say they’ve had such a diagnosis.
Past research has shown that nicotine makes people more sensitive to stress and affects the coping mechanisms people can use to protect themselves from symptoms of depression, Obisesan wrote.
On top of that, Obisesan wrote that nicotine vape liquids contain elements such as arsenic, aluminum and lead that affect the nervous system and could, in theory, contribute to the connection she found between depression and e-cigarette use.
The study should serve as a springboard for further research, Obisesan told The Oregonian/OregonLive. While it shows a connection between vaping and depression, it doesn’t explain why that connection exists.
“We can’t say definitely that one thing causes the other,” she said.
Obisesan said she thinks people with mental health conditions are more likely to start vaping and that people who pick up e-cigarettes are more likely to become depressed. But it would take additional research to back that up, she said.
The evidence from past research on tobacco indicates she could be on the right track.
People with mental health conditions smoke at rates 70 percent higher than the rest of the population, Obisesan wrote, and they tend to smoke more and find it harder to quit. About 50 studies have found a connection between smoking and people developing depression or anxiety later in life, according to a 2016 analysis of existing research.
Obisesan began her study when she and her colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease decided to examine the general effects vaping has on health. Other researchers took on heart health, others took on lung health and she took on mental health.
But Obisesan isn’t trying to find out how vaping affects mental health only for the sake of science. She said she wants people to know about the health risks associated with the products and is particularly concerned that young people have flocked to vaping.
“This study will inform the public that there could be an association” between vaping and depression, she said. “You should know this if you decide you want to pick this up.”
If future researchers do find out how vaping is connected to depression, that could mean a lot for public policy, Obisesan said.
Such connections could justify stricter oversight of marketing, for example, with labels that warn people that e-cigarettes are associated with depression.
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