Journal Article
Practice Guideline
Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
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The expert consensus guideline series. Pharmacotherapy of depressive disorders in older patients.

OBJECTIVES: Depression in older patients contributes to personal suffering and family disruption and increases disability, medical morbidity, mortality, suicide risk, and healthcare utilization. The majority of clinical trials of antidepressant treatments are conducted in younger patients. For this reason, clinicians often have to extrapolate from studies in populations that do not present the same problems as older patients. For example, older patients often have serious coexisting medical conditions that may contribute to the depression and complicate the choice of treatment. Older patients as a rule need to be on many medications, some of which may contribute to depression and/or interact with antidepressants. Finally, older adults metabolize medications slowly and are more sensitive to side effects than younger patients. Because of these complexities, we conducted a consensus survey of expert opinion on the pharmacotherapy of depressive disorders in older patients to address clinical questions not definitively answered in the research literature.

METHOD: After reviewing the literature and convening a work group of experts, we prepared a written survey with 64 questions that asked about 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 options, the experts were asked to write in answers (e.g., average doses) or to check a box to indicate their preferred answer. We sent the survey to 50 national experts on geriatric depression, all of whom completed it. Consensus on each option was defined as a nonrandom distribution of scores by chi-square "goodness-of-fit" test. We assigned a categorical rank (first line/preferred choice, second line/alternate choice, third line/usually inappropriate) to each option based on the 95% confidence interval around the mean rating. Guideline tables indicating preferred treatment strategies were then developed for key clinical situations.

RESULTS: The expert panel reached consensus on 89% of the options rated on the 9-point scale. The experts stress the importance of identifying coexisting medical conditions that may be contributing to the depression or complicate treatment. For unipolar nonpsychotic major depression, the preferred strategy is an antidepressant (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor [SSRI] or venlafaxine XR preferred) plus psychotherapy. For unipolar psychotic major depression, the treatment of choice is an antidepressant (SSRI or venlafaxine XR) plus one of the newer atypical antipsychotics. Electroconvulsive therapy is also first line. For dysthymic disorder or persistent milder depression, the experts recommend combining an antidepressant (SSRIs preferred) and psychotherapy. If the patient has a comorbid medical condition (e.g., hypothyroidism) 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. Among them, the experts gave the highest ratings for efficacy and tolerability 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 give strong support to including appropriate psychosocial interventions (e.g., psychoeducation, family counseling, visiting nurse services) in the treatment program. The majority of experts would continue treatment with antidepressant medication for at least 1 year if a patient has had a single episode of severe unipolar major depression, for 1-3 years for a patient who has had 2 such episodes, and for longer than 3 years if there is a history of 3 or more episodes.

CONCLUSIONS: The experts reached a high level of consensus on the appropriateness of including both antidepressant medication, specifically SSRIs, and nonpharmacological modalities in treatment plans for severe depression. Within the limits of expert opinion and with the expectation that future research data will take precedence, these guidelines provide direction for addressing common clinical dilemmas in older individuals. They can be used to inform clinicians and educate patients regarding the relative merits of a variety of interventions. Nonetheless, the guidelines cannot address the complexities involved in the care of each individual patient and can be most helpful in the hands of experienced clinicians.

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