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Treating Depression in Elderly Helps Body Too

With a Healthier Mind Comes a Body That Works Better, Study Shows
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WebMD Health News

March 16, 2005 -- Elderly people who get treated for depression appear to benefit physically, as well as mentally.

Depression is "a common problem and it's treatable" in senior citizens, says Christopher Callahan, MD, of Indiana University's medical school, a specialist in research on aging.

"When we say it's treatable, we're suggesting that not only the depression symptoms themselves are treatable, but that it may also be accompanied with improved physical function," Callahan tells WebMD.

Callahan and colleagues have new evidence of that. They've just reported their results from a year-long study of about 1,000 depressed senior citizens nationwide. The findings showed improved physical function with depression treatment.

If you or someone you know is concerned with depression in old age, the study had several key findings. "First, it shows that even older adults with failing physical health can be successfully treated for depression. Second, it shows that treating the depression also helps slow the physical decline," they write in a news release.

It boils down to this:

  • Get help
  • Try the patient's primary care physician
  • Consult the patient about treatment options
  • Look for physical and mental improvement
  • Be persistent
  • Be sensitive to generational differences

Get Help

"Once the concern is there, the best approach is to accompany that older adult to visit their primary care physician and raise the issue very directly," he tells WebMD.

Don't write off depression to the trials of old age or poor health. Depression is often a separate illness that's fixable, even when other conditions are also present, says Callahan.

Try the Patient's Primary Care Doctor

Some elderly people may feel more comfortable discussing depression with their regular doctor than with a psychiatric specialist, says Callahan.

"Older adults seem to prefer treatment for these common mental illnesses from their primary care physician," he says. Of course, there's nothing wrong with going to a specialist, if the patient is open to it. What matters is getting treatment from whomever the patient prefers.

Ask the Patient About Depression Treatment Choices

Give older patients a choice about what approach they would prefer to try first -- talk therapy or prescription antidepressants, suggests Callahan.

The patients in his study didn't have a clear preference. However, "we were surprised by the number who chose psychotherapy first," says Callahan. "I think that's an important lesson for us -- that a lot [of older people] would prefer to at least try that route first."

Look for Physical and Mental Results

In Callahan's study, half of the participants were assigned to depression specialists. The rest received standard care without a specialist.

The specialists coordinated depression treatment, working with the participants' primary care doctors. The specialists could also deliver talk therapy. "They were sort of one-stop shopping for depression [treatment]," says Callahan.

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