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J Psychiatr Pract. 2001 Nov;7(6):361-76.

Pharmacotherapy of depression in older patients: a summary of the expert consensus guidelines.

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  • 1Cornell Institute of Geriatric Psychiatry, White Plains, NY 10605, USA.


Depression in older adults increases disability, medical morbidity, mortality, suicide risk, and healthcare utilization. Most studies of antidepressants are conducted in younger adults, and clinicians often have to extrapolate from findings in populations that do not present the same problems as older patients. Older patients often have serious coexisting medical conditions that may contribute to or complicate treatment of depression; they tend to take multiple medications, some of which may contribute to depression or interact with antidepressants; and they metabolize medications slowly and are more sensitive to side effects than younger patients. To address clinical questions not definitively answered in the research literature, the authors surveyed 50 experts on the pharmacotherapy of depressive disorders in older patients. The survey contained 64 questions with 857 options: 618 of the options were scored using a modified version of the RAND 9-point scale for rating appropriateness of medical decisions; for the other 239 options, the experts were asked to write in answers or check a box. The experts reached consensus on 89% of the options rated on the 9-point scale. Categorical rankings (first line/preferred, second line/alternate, third line/usually inappropriate) were assigned to each option based on the 95% confidence interval around the mean rating. Guideline tables indicating preferred treatment strategies were then developed for common and important clinical scenarios. The authors summarize the expert consensus methodology and the experts' recommendations and discuss how they relate to research findings. The experts recommend including both antidepressant medication and psychotherapy in treatment plans for nonpsychotic unipolar major depressive disorder of any severity, as well as for dysthymic disorder or persistent minor depressive disorder. They would also consider using either medication or psychotherapy alone for milder depression. For unipolar psychotic major depression, the treatment of choice is an antidepressant plus one of the newer atypical antipsychotics, with electroconvulsive therapy another first-line option. If the patient has a comorbid medical condition that is contributing to the depression, the experts recommend treating both the depression and the medical condition from the outset. The SSRIs were the top-rated antidepressants for all types of depression, with highest ratings for efficacy and tolerability given to citalopram and sertraline. Paroxetine was another first-line option, and fluoxetine was rated high second line. The preferred psychotherapy techniques for treating depression in older patients are cognitive-behavioral therapy, supportive psychotherapy, problem-solving psychotherapy, and interpersonal psychotherapy. The experts also recommended use of psychosocial interventions (e.g., psychoeducation, family counseling, visiting nurse services) in addition to pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Within limits of expert opinion and with the expectation that future research data will take precedence, these guidelines provide direction concerning common clinical dilemmas in older patients. They cannot address the complexities of each individual patient's care and can be most helpful in the hands of experienced clinicians.

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