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University researchers see fall in depression among elderly

By Will Greenberg, Daily Staff Reporter
Published July 17, 2013

New research from the University indicates that old-age may not be as depressing as demonstrated in the past.

Kara Zivin, assistant professor of psychiatry, and her team used a Health and Retirement Survey of subjects age 55 and older and found depressive symptoms to be in a general decline.

Results, which were collected over a 10-year period between 1998 and 2008 with 16,184 subjects, were determined using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, which includes eight symptoms of depression. Subjects answered the survey based on the number of symptoms they experienced in the week before taking the survey.

Zivin said the number of subjects with four or more symptoms, the minimum number to indicate significant depression, decreased over the course of the study. The results also indicated that the number of people with zero symptoms increased from 40.9 percent to 47.4 percent and there were no significant changes in severe symptoms for those 60 or older.

However, within the 55- to 59-year-old age group, the number showing severe symptoms — six or more — increased from 5.8 percent to 6.8 percent. Zivin said while not enough research has been done to explain the variances between age groups, it is important to understand that not all older adults are treated the same way.

“Things that may be affecting mental health in a 50-year-old may be very different than mental health in an 80- year-old,” she said.

The study came in the context of a larger “program project grant” that primarily included faculty from the University and Harvard University. Within the project are five studies in various areas of the healthcare field with the overall goal of assessing the cost and quality of health care treatment in the U.S.

Sandeep Vijan, associate professor of internal medicine and a co-author of the study, said while it’s too early to give any definitive statements the results’ impact on mental health care, there are signs that care could be improving.

“The fact that these changes hold up in the face of all those other things at least suggest that it could be due to better diagnosis and treatment,” Vijan said.

While the researchers considered factors such as race, gender and net worth, Vijan said there are many external factors that were not included in the study, such as the Great Recession, that will need to be assessed in future studies.

Zivin said she plans to use Medicare data for the next study so depression symptom analysis can be compared with standard treatment and hopes to further analyze why some subjects remain depressed while some improve with time.

“The analysis that we did was just looking at basic population prevalence, what proportion of people have depression,” Zivin said. “Which is a different question than, ‘Does an individual person stay depressed for a long period of time or do they get better?’ ”

Vijan said the full process of locating specific benefits and weaknesses of mental health care in America will take a while and called it an “interim process.”

“We should still try to make sure those people are getting what they need in terms of treatment or in terms of other support,” Zivin said. “So, there’s good news but we can’t just say, ‘Okay, everything is fine.’ ”


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