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Weighing risks and benefits of drug treatment for major depression

June 12, 2019

Depression is a common and serious problem for older adults. Some 15 to 20 percent of people aged 65 and older who live independently deal with symptoms of major depressive disorder. For residents of nursing homes, the rates of depression may be as high as 50 percent.

For some people, medication is an effective part of treatment for depression. However, when considering whether to prescribe antidepressant medication for older adults, healthcare providers must weigh the safety risks these medications pose against the often modest benefits they can provide compared to other options.

For example, tools like the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) Beers Criteria® for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults recommended that healthcare providers avoid prescribing certain antidepressant medications to older adults who have a history of falls or fractures. These include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). That's because these medications may actually increase the risk of falls and fractures.

Understanding these and other risks associated with "potentially inappropriate medications" is key to building better care for us all as we age. That's why a team of researchers recently reviewed and analyzed studies to learn more specifically about the harmful effects of antidepressants for treating major depressive disorder in adults 65 years of age or older. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The systematic review was performed at the University of Connecticut Evidence-based Practice Center (EPC). The researchers reviewed studies that examined how many older adults experienced a harmful event during the study.

The researchers looked at patients 65 years of age or older who are prescribed serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) to treat the acute phase of major depressive disorder (the earliest stage of the condition, when the goal is to address the symptoms associated with an episode of depression). They found that taking SNRIs led to a greater number of harmful events compared to people who took a placebo (a harmless sugar pill that has no effect on health and is prescribed to some study participants to help with comparing their results to results from people who were treated with actual medication). Older adults who took SSRIs experienced about the same number of harmful events as did people who took a placebo.

The researchers said that taking either SSRIs or SNRIs led to a greater number of people leaving the study due to harmful events of the drugs compared to placebos. They also noted that the drug duloxetine, an SSRI, increased the risk of falls.

"Some of the antidepressants have not been studied in older patients with major depression, and studies don't often describe specific side effects. Future research in this field is critical to better inform how the safety profiles of different antidepressants compare in older adults," said study co-author Diana M. Sobieraj, Pharm.D., FCCP, BCPS, Assistant Professor, University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy.
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This summary is from "Adverse Effects of Pharmacologic Treatments of Major Depression in Older Adults." It appears online ahead of print in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are Diana M. Sobieraj, PharmD; Brandon K. Martinez, PharmD; Adrian V. Hernandez, MD, PhD; Craig I. Coleman, PharmD; Joseph S. Ross, MD, MSH; Karina M. Berg, MD, MS; David C. Steffens, MD, MHS; and William L. Baker, PharmD.

About the Health in Aging Foundation

This research summary was developed as a public education tool by the Health in Aging Foundation. The Foundation is a national non-profit established in 1999 by the American Geriatrics Society to bring the knowledge and expertise of geriatrics healthcare professionals to the public. We are committed to ensuring that people are empowered to advocate for high-quality care by providing them with trustworthy information and reliable resources. Last year, we reached nearly 1 million people with our resources through HealthinAging.org. We also help nurture current and future geriatrics leaders by supporting opportunities to attend educational events and increase exposure to principles of excellence on caring for older adults. For more information or to support the Foundation's work, visit http://www.HealthinAgingFoundation.org.

About the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society

Included in more than 9,000 library collections around the world, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS) highlights emerging insights on principles of aging, approaches to older patients, geriatric syndromes, geriatric psychiatry, and geriatric diseases and disorders. First published in 1953, JAGS is now one of the oldest and most impactful publications on gerontology and geriatrics, according to ISI Journal Citation Reports®. Visit wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/JGS for more details.

About the American Geriatrics Society

Founded in 1942, the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) is a nationwide, not-for-profit society of geriatrics healthcare professionals that has--for 75 years--worked to improve the health, independence, and quality of life of older people. Its nearly 6,000 members include geriatricians, geriatric nurses, social workers, family practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and internists. The Society provides leadership to healthcare professionals, policymakers, and the public by implementing and advocating for programs in patient care, research, professional and public education, and public policy. For more information, visit AmericanGeriatrics.org.

American Geriatrics Society

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