Nov. 3, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Depression alone is a risk factor for premature death in the elderly, independent of the health and sociodemographic factors typically associated with people who are depressed. In a new study, researchers from The Netherlands found that even after accounting for smoking, physical activity, and economic status, minor depression in men and major depression for both men and women was associated with an increased likelihood of an early death.
"This study confirms that depression is a serious illness and is not a normal part of aging, but is in fact a deadly disease in it's own right," Patrick Cody, vice president and spokesperson for the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va. tells WebMD.
According to the study, depressed people usually have a lower socioeconomic status and a worse health status than their nondepressed peers. These characteristics may partly be responsible for their increased mortality risk.
"To what extent a possibly increased mortality risk among depressed persons is caused by socioeconomic status and health status has not been extensively described," write lead researcher Brenda W. J. H. Penninx, PhD, and collegues. The study appears in the October issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Penninx says that depressed persons are known to be more likely than nondepressed persons to smoke, drink alcohol excessively, engage in less physical activity, and have unhealthy eating habits. "Whether these health behaviors explain part of their increased mortality risk has not been examined before, to our knowledge," according to the authors.
The Dutch researchers followed over 3,000 men and women from age 55 to age 85 for 4 years. The patients were evaluated for depression using two commonly used scales.
After adjusting for sociodemographics and health status factors, researchers found that men with minor depression had nearly twice the risk of early death as did nondepressed men.
In women, minor depression did not significantly increase the mortality risk. For both men and women, major depression caused nearly a twofold higher mortality risk. "Health behaviors such as smoking and physical inactivity explained only a small part of the excess mortality risk associated with depression," writes Penninx, a professor at the EMGO Institute, Vrije Universiteit, in Amsterdam.