Antidepressant prescribing in nursing homes: is there a place for tricyclics?

S Borson, J M Scanlan, K Doane, S Gray
International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2002, 17 (12): 1140-5

OBJECTIVE: To deduce a model describing physicians' choice of antidepressants for treating elderly nursing home patients.

METHODS: Subjects were geriatric residents of 137 skilled nursing facilities who regularly received an antidepressant medication for at least one month (n = 3,440, 28% of all residents). Reasons for prescribing antidepressants and physicians' diagnoses of depression and dementia were identified by medical record audit. Residents were grouped by dementia and antidepressant target symptoms (depression, or one or more non-psychiatric symptoms, i.e. insomnia, pain, incontinence, itching).

RESULTS: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were prescribed preferentially over tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) for treating depression in both demented and non-demented residents, but TCAs were nine times more likely to be prescribed for treating non-psychiatric target symptoms alone. When non-psychiatric target symptoms were present without depression or dementia, both amitriptyline and nortriptyline prescribing was increased, but amitriptyline appeared to be the antidepressant of choice. In all subgroups examined, its use was two to five times more prevalent when such symptoms were present. In patients with dementia, amitriptyline prescribing declined whether or not non-psychiatric target symptoms were present, but nortriptyline prescribing did not; nortriptyline was three times more likely than amitriptyline to be prescribed in the presence of dementia.

CONCLUSIONS: Physicians prescribe anticholinergic TCAs principally to treat common non-depressive symptoms in nursing home residents, preferring SSRIs for uncomplicated depression and depression with dementia. They tend to avoid prescribing anticholinergic TCAs other than nortriptyline when they recognize a patient as demented. The data suggest that physicians employ a decision model for antidepressant prescribing that simultaneously recognizes the utility of TCAs in treating non-psychiatric symptoms and the anticholinergic vulnerability of older, especially demented, patients. Whether or not this model leads to optimal patient management requires further study.

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