Treating Older Adults

Studies show that the majority of older adults with depression improve when they receive treatment with an antidepressant, psychotherapy or a combination of both. In addition, research has indicated that treating depression in older adults often improves the outcomes of co-existing medical conditions. Some research has also suggested that the risk for developing depression in people who have had a stroke may be reduced if they receive preventative treatment with an antidepressant or talk therapy.

Special Considerations

However, there are some special considerations that doctors must take into account when treating older adults. The commonly prescribed medications for depression may not work well for some older adults because they may interact unfavorably with other medications being taken for other conditions. Some older adults with depression may also have some problems thinking clearly, and these individuals often respond poorly to the drugs.

Which Form of Treatment Is Most Effective?

Many older adults prefer to get counseling or psychotherapy for depression rather than add more medications to those they are already taking for other conditions. Research suggests that for older adults, psychotherapy is just as likely to be an effective first treatment for depression as taking an antidepressant. There is a great deal of evidence indicating that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), including a version called problem solving therapy, may be an especially useful type of psychotherapy for treating older adults and improving their quality of life.

However, a practical issue to consider when deciding on treatment is that it may be harder for many older people to find or be able to travel to meetings with a well-trained psychotherapist than to get a prescription for antidepressant medication from their primary care doctor. Also, some research suggests that treatment with medication may be more effective if the depression is quite severe or if the older adult is coping with other serious illnesses.

Overall, research has suggested that, when possible, a combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment is likely to be most effective in treating depression in older adults and, in particular, for reducing the number of new episodes.

Late-Life Depression is Often Undiagnosed

Despite progress in treatment research, late-life depression often goes undiagnosed or is inadequately treated in older adults. In fact, several studies have found that up to 75 percent of older adults who die by suicide had visited their primary care doctors within one month of their deaths. Collaborative or comprehensive care may lead to better treatment results.

Collaborative Care

The Prevention of Suicide in Primary Care Elderly: Collaborative Trial (PROSPECT) offered antidepressant medication and/or psychotherapy to depressed older adults, along with a "care manager" -- a social worker, nurse or psychologist -- who monitored their symptoms, side effects of medication, and progress.

The study found that those participants who had case-managed care got better more quickly, had longer periods without depression, and in general responded better to treatment than those who did not have case-managed care.

Another study called the Improving Mood: Promoting Access to Collaborative Treatment (IMPACT) trial also found that collaborative care was more effective than usual care, and was less expensive over the long run as well.

Improving Diagnosis of Depression

Several studies are looking at ways to help older adults get better access to depression treatment. One is developing and testing an education and intervention program to help primary care clinics and providers identify and treat late-life depression. Another study found that depressed older adults who had a "care manager" monitor their symptoms, side effects, and progress got better more quickly -- and stayed better longer -- than those who did not have case-managed care. Still other projects are investigating ways of improving older adults’ engagement in and ability to follow treatment plans for depression.

Researchers are also looking at ways to

  • better understand the relationship between other medical illnesses and depression
  • integrate treatment for depression with treatments for other medical conditions a person may have
  • produce a quicker response to treatment
  • develop new methods for delivering treatment to those who are homebound, unable to move around without assistance, or who live in rural areas. (e.g., via use of telephonic or internet-assisted therapies)
  • help prevent depression by keeping it from developing or recurring in those at risk or by preventing those with milder symptoms from progressing to more severe episodes of depression.

Findings from these and other studies will provide important information for doctors to treat late-life depression.

In a Crisis? Get Help!

If you are in a crisis...

If you are thinking about harming yourself or attempting suicide, tell someone who can help immediately.

  • Call your doctor.
  • Call 911 for emergency services.
  • Go to the nearest hospital emergency room.
  • Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889) to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.