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Long-Term Antidepressants for Elderly?

Study Shows Depression in Old People Should Be Treated as Chronic Illness

Preventing Recurrence of Depression

Most experts only treat depression in the elderly for six to 12 months. Reynolds says many older patients are taken off antidepressant drugs within six months or a year of initial treatment.

In the study, Reynolds and colleagues with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine looked at whether continuing drug treatment or psychotherapy could help prevent recurrences in elderly patients.

One hundred sixteen patients over the age of 70 who responded to treatment with Paxil in combination with monthly psychotherapy were treated with either continued antidepressant drugs or a placebo in combination with psychotherapy or monthly medical management sessions. The patients continued on these treatment therapies for two years or until major depression recurred.

Slightly more than one in three patients (35%) treated with the drug and psychotherapy became depressed again during this time, compared with 37% of patients treated with the drug and clinical management, 58% of those receiving placebo and monthly medical management, and 68% of those receiving placebo and psychotherapy.

Patients who received placebo were 2.4 times as likely to have their depression recur as those who continued on the antidepressant.

Depression Isn't Inevitable

In an editorial accompanying the study, Wake Forest University psychiatry professor Burton V. Reifler, MD, MPH, writes that doctors often wrongly regard depression in the elderly as an inevitable consequence of aging and declining health.

"Dismissing depression as inevitable denies the patient a fair chance of recovery from an illness that not only is potentially disabling but also increases the risk of death," he writes. "The available evidence suggests that advancing age does not diminish the potential for a response to antidepressant medication."

Reifler tells WebMD that he agrees with Reynolds' view that depression tends to be chronic in elderly people who have had it. But he added that it is premature to call for lifelong drug treatment for every elderly patient with the disease.

"In actual practice a lot of experienced geriatric psychiatrists, myself included, have begun recommending to elderly patients who respond to medication for depression that they remain on the medication indefinitely," he says. "The findings of this study are completely consistent with what we are seeing in practice, but they need to be replicated."

Montefiore Medical Center geriatric psychiatrist Gary Kennedy, MD, says the findings should change clinical practice by making doctors think twice about taking elderly patients off antidepressant drugs that seem to be working.

In his own research, Kennedy has found that older patients who have anxiety along with depression and patients who continue to have sleep problems despite successful depression treatment are at high risk for recurrences.

"If sleep starts to deteriorate, that could be a simple sign that patients need to continue drug treatment," he says.

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