Volume 5: No.
1, January 2008
Depression as a Major Component of Public Health for Older Adults
Daniel P. Chapman, PhD, MSc, Geraldine S. Perry, DrPH
Suggested citation for this article: Chapman DP, Perry GS.
Depression as a major component of public health for older adults. Prev Chronic Dis 2008;5(1).
jan/07_0150.htm. Accessed [date].
Although public health is often conceptualized only as the prevention of physical illness, recent data suggest that mental illnesses are increasingly relevant to the mission of disease prevention and health promotion. Projections are that by 2020, depression will be second only to heart disease in its contribution to the global burden of disease as measured by disability-adjusted life
years. Also, as the population ages, successive cohorts of older adults will account for increasingly larger segments of the U.S. population. We present the diagnostic criteria
for, prevalence of, and risk factors for depressive disorders among older adults; the challenges of recognizing and treating depression in this population; the cost-effectiveness of relevant public health interventions; and the
public health implications of these disorders.
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Depressive disorders, which are syndromes characterized by the impairment of mood regulation, most commonly include major depression and dysthymia, a disorder characterized by chronic low mood (1,2). In older adults (generally defined as aged 65 years or older), these disorders may also be characterized by impairment in cognition, a syndrome sometimes referred to as pseudodementia
(2), and by psychomotor agitation or retardation (1). As a result, symptoms of depressive disorder are frequently masked in older adults and may initially appear to be cognitive impairment or an early sign of neuroendocrine and related chronic disorders, making physical and laboratory examination of older adults with symptoms
of depressive disorders important to their care.
Although research shows that the prevalence of major depression is generally lower among older
adults than among young adults (3), understanding depressive disorders among older adults remains vital to public health. Rates of major depression rose markedly over the past decade (4), suggesting that future cohorts of older adults will have increasing numbers of people who have experienced or are
contending with depressive disorders. Projections suggest that by 2020, depression will become the second leading cause of disease
worldwide, as measured by disability-adjusted life years (5). Furthermore, depression characteristically complicates the course and outcome of other illnesses among older adults.
Perhaps more compelling, depressive disorders are strong predictors of suicide for older adults, and the majority of those who committed suicide
had seen their health care providers within the month before their deaths (6).
Despite the lower rates of depression among older people (3),
suicide rates are higher in this age group than in any other (7), suggesting that significant
depressive symptoms may indicate a serious threat to the health and survival of older adults.
Tragically, both older adults and their health care providers may be misguided by the belief that depression is an expected part of aging (8). Also, depressed older adults may have multiple complaints (9), making the diagnosis and treatment of depressive disorders particularly difficult (8,9). These findings suggest the need for public health interventions to destigmatize the diagnosis and
treatment of depression and to better enable older adults and their health care providers to recognize this condition. To help better address these issues, we describe recent developments in understanding the characteristics of depressive disorders in older adults and provide an overview of the diagnostic criteria, prevalence, risk factors, and public health impact of these disorders.
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We searched PubMed (National Center for Biotechnology Information, Bethesda, Maryland) using the keywords depression and dysthymia crossed with the search terms public health and older adults
and found 51 articles relevant to our study. We limited our review to articles
that were published in the past 10 years and that provided definitional or
diagnostic criteria for depressive disorders, indicated a specified observation
interval, and for the most part, reported on empirical investigations. Subject
matter experts suggested additional articles.
Table 1 describes the 19 articles retained for comprehensive review.
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Diagnostic Criteria for Depression and Dysthymia
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition
(1), the diagnosis of major depression can be made if a patient has five or more of the following symptoms during the same 2-week interval with at least one of the symptoms being either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were previously pleasurable:
- Depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in previously pleasurable activities
- Significant weight gain or loss
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Psychomotor agitation or retardation
- Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
- Impaired concentration
- Recurrent thoughts of death
Although some empirical investigations use these criteria to determine eligibility for inclusion as study subjects, these investigations must be distinguished from studies using clinically significant depressive symptoms, because the latter may include some study subjects who meet diagnostic criteria for major depression. For these study subjects, the existing symptoms are generally viewed as
significantly impairing quality of life and performance of the activities of daily living.
Although similar to a diagnosis of depression, a diagnosis of dysthymia requires only two or more of the following symptoms:
- Poor appetite or overeating
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Low self-esteem
- Impaired concentration
- Feelings of hopelessness
A diagnosis of dysthymia also requires that the person experience depressed mood for most of the day, more days than not, across an interval of at least 2 years, and not be asymptomatic for longer than 2 months during the 2-year course of illness (1). Thus, dysthymia follows a more chronic course than that of depression but comprises fewer disabling symptoms.
Although generally construed as less severe than major depression, dysthymia is by no means a benign illness. In an investigation of older outpatients
with a diagnoses of “double depression” (i.e., major depression combined with dysthymia), Joiner et al found that these people had sharply higher rates of hopelessness than did people
with a diagnosis of just one of these illnesses (29).
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Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Risk Factors
Major depression has been found to be less prevalent among older adults living in communities than among younger
community residents. This finding may appear counterintuitive to notions of depression as an expected facet of aging and may reflect, at least among women, the influence of cohort effects (10). Using the diagnostic criteria for major depression, the Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) Study
reported a 1-year prevalence of this disorder of 0.9% among people aged 65 years or older, compared with 2.3% for people
aged 45 to 64 years and 3.9% for people aged 30 to 44 years (3). Although the ECA Study began in 1980, its results on major depression remain noteworthy because, unlike other studies, the findings of the ECA Study are based on diagnostic criteria for depressive disorder. Moreover,
the ECA Study has the strength of having assessed a large sample of adults aged 65 years or older (N = 187,161)
in five geographically distinct sites (New Haven, Connecticut; Baltimore, Maryland; St. Louis, Missouri; Durham, North Carolina; Los Angeles, California) (11).
The Established Populations for Epidemiologic Studies
of the Elderly, a longitudinal study of data from three communities (East
Boston, Massachusetts; New Haven, Connecticut; and two counties in Iowa),
compared over a 6-year interval 5751 older adults who were not depressed
with 496 who were depressed. The depressed group had a relative risk of 1.67
(95% CI, 1.44–1.95) for inability to perform activities of daily living and
of 1.73 (95% CI, 1.54–1.94) for mobility impairment (12). These results suggest that although depressive disorders may not be highly prevalent among older adults, they pose serious consequences to health and functioning.
The living environment of older adults appears highly relevant to the prevalence of depressive disorders. One study of
539 older adults receiving health care in their homes found that about 13.5% were depressed according to diagnostic criteria (13), and a study of the medical records of 3710 nursing home patients found a 20.3% prevalence of depression (14). A study of 562 residents in 65 nursing
homes in the Netherlands is particularly telling: symptoms of depressive disorder were pronounced among newly admitted nursing home residents (26.9%), especially
among those admitted from their own homes (34.3%) rather than from a hospital (19.7%) (15). Similarly,
an epidemiologic study of the prevalence of dysthymia revealed a lifetime prevalence of 1.7% among older adults residing in their home community
(3), whereas a study of 224 consecutively diagnosed older outpatients in a late-life depression clinic found a 17.9% prevalence of dysthymia (16).
Given the high rates of depression among older adults receiving home care or living in institutions, it is not surprising that comorbidity in people in these groups may be risk factors for depression. Analyzing data obtained from 2611 Asian adults aged 55 years or older, Niti
et al (17) found the prevalence of symptoms of depressive disorder to be much
higher for respondents with chronic disease (13.7%–24.2%) than for those without chronic disease (7.5%). Multivariate analyses by these investigators found that after adjustment for comorbidity and functional status, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, gastric problems, arthritis, and heart failure remained independently associated with symptoms of depressive disorder. Thus, the chronic diseases frequently
reported by older adults may increase the likelihood of depressive disorder.
On the other hand, depressive disorders are themselves associated with risk factors for chronic disease in older adults. In one study, older adults with elevated scores on a test of psychological distress were found to be more likely than their peers not experiencing such distress to smoke,
to be obese, to be impoverished, and to have received a diagnosis
of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke (18). Older adults who reported a
decline in self-reported physical activity over a 3-year interval were
significantly more likely to be depressed than were those who did not (19).
Likewise, another study found that older adults who were depressed at baseline were less likely than those who were not depressed to report substantial improvement in self-rated health and more likely to report a substantial decline across the
2-year follow-up interval (20). Longitudinal research has established that
long-term symptoms of depressive disorder are inversely related to health among older residents of communities (21), corroborating cross-sectional findings that depression is
associated with disability in the cognitive and physical activities of daily living (22).
Serebruany et al (30) note that the diagnosis of depression is an independent
risk factor for mortality among patients with acute coronary syndromes (ACS). One class of antidepressant medications, serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), is thought to inhibit platelet activity, which may protect the heart independent of
its use as an antidepressant (30). This property
may be particularly valuable because depression, which commonly follows ACS, is associated with an increased risk of mortality (23). In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 369 patients with ACS and depression, Glassman et al (23) found that 53% of depressive episodes began before hospitalization for the index episode of ACS. Over a 4-year study period, the following groups of
patients benefited from administration of an SSRI agent: patients with episodes of depression preceding their ACS, patients with a history of depression, and patients whose episodes were severe. The investigators further noted that these three predictors of response to an SSRI medication are independent and specified that the presence of more than one of them considerably increases the
benefits of an SSRI but also reduces the probability of spontaneous recovery. These data point to the importance of considering both somatic and psychiatric factors in attempting to optimize the care of older adults with cardiovascular disease, and more broadly, they indicate the interrelatedness of the pathophysiology of organ systems.
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Public Health Impact and Impediments to Intervention
The importance to public health of the finding that depressive disorders may often lead to chronic disease cannot be overstated. We also need to appreciate the tendency of depressive disorders to complicate the course and treatment of chronic disease. Moreover, as chronic disease and depressive disorder are increasingly recognized as contributing to the challenges of providing quality health
care, understanding the connection between the two becomes more vital.
Unfortunately, detecting depressive disorders in older adults may be
difficult because symptoms may be masked as physical complaints, particularly
among frail older adults. Brief assessment tools, such as the Psychological Distress
Inventory (PDI-29), may be useful in identifying undiagnosed psychological
disorders among frail adults receiving home care services (24) and thereby may decrease the likelihood that depressed older
adults will not receive treatment. Other risk factors for nontreatment or inadequate treatment of depression in older adults include being male, being African American or
Latino, experiencing fewer than two previous depressive episodes, and expressing a preference for counseling instead of antidepressant medication (25).
Because older adults are usually no longer employed, the cost of depression and the efficacy of its treatment often receive little consideration. Depression in older adults is costly, however, because it results in more visits to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms (31). Older adults with chronic disease and depressive disorder
may experience increased symptoms of disease (26), and
depression is an independent risk factor for mortality (27). Whether alone or with physical chronic diseases, depression is a major source of disability among older adults (32), and
older adults with increased symptoms of depressive disorder are less mobile and report fewer social contacts than do their peers who are not depressed (12).
In truth, public health interventions need not be costly and may result in reduced expenditures. The IMPACT (Improving Mood
— Promoting Access to Collaborative Training) program, a collaborative-care approach to the management of depression and diabetes in older adults, is a stepped-care program that demonstrates this point (28). Older adults are assigned depression care managers who provide
structured activities, including exercise. Participants may choose either problem-solving treatment or antidepressant treatment, both from a primary care provider. The problem-solving treatment is a structured 6- to 8-session psychotherapy intervention with efficacy comparable to that of antidepressants. In the IMPACT Study (recruitment, 1999–2001),
418 of 1801 patients at 18 primary care clinics from 8 health care organizations
in 5 unspecified states were randomly assigned to receive either the IMPACT
intervention (n = 204) or usual care (n = 214). During a 24-month period,
participants in the IMPACT program had a mean of 115 more depression-free days
than did participants receiving usual care (28).
The broad costs of depression in older adults — premature mortality, morbidity, and diminished quality of life — are incalculable. Unfortunately, the stigmatization of mental illness and the cost of medication keep many older people from adhering to treatment for depression (33). By integrating depression and other mental illnesses into research and interventions, the
public health community will likely increase recognition of depression and lessen needless suffering. At the same time, we need to work to enhance the prevention and management of depression and to address policy and resource considerations necessary to support these endeavors.
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The authors thank Jaya Rao, MD, for her many helpful comments on previous versions of this manuscript.
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Corresponding Author: Daniel P. Chapman, PhD, MSc, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4770 Buford Hwy, NE, MS K-67, Atlanta, GA 30341. Telephone: 770-488-5463. E-mail: DChapman@cdc.gov.
Author Affiliation: Geraldine S. Perry, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia.
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