Co-occurring depressive symptoms in the older patient with schizophrenia

John W Kasckow, Sidney Zisook
Drugs & Aging 2008, 25 (8): 631-47
Clinicians treating older patients with schizophrenia are often challenged by patients presenting with both depressive and psychotic features. The presence of co-morbid depression impacts negatively on quality of life, functioning, overall psychopathology and the severity of co-morbid medical conditions. Depressive symptoms in patients with schizophrenia include major depressive episodes (MDEs) that do not meet criteria for schizoaffective disorder, MDEs that occur in the context of schizoaffective disorder and subthreshold depressive symptoms that do not meet criteria for MDE. Pharmacological treatment of patients with schizophrenia and depression involves augmenting antipsychotic medications with antidepressants. Recent surveys suggest that clinicians prescribe antidepressants to 30% of inpatients and 43% of outpatients with schizophrenia and depression at all ages. Recent trials addressing the efficacy of this practice have evaluated selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluoxetine, sertraline, fluvoxamine and citalopram. These trials have included only a small number of subjects and few older subjects participated; furthermore, the efficacy results have been mixed. Although no published controlled psychotherapeutic studies have specifically targeted major depression or depressive symptoms in older patients with schizophrenia, psychosocial interventions likely play a role in any comprehensive management plan in this population of patients.Our recommendations for treating the older patient with schizophrenia and major depression involve a stepwise approach. First, a careful diagnostic assessment to rule out medical or medication causes is important as well as checking whether patients are adherent to treatments. Clinicians should also consider switching patients to an atypical antipsychotic if they are not taking one already. In addition, dose optimization needs to be targeted towards depressive as well as positive and negative psychotic symptoms. If major depression persists, adding an SSRI is a reasonable next step; one needs to start with a low dose and then cautiously titrate upward to reduce depressive symptoms. If remission is not achieved after an adequate treatment duration (8-12 weeks) or with an adequate dose (similar to that used for major depression without schizophrenia), switching to another agent or adding augmenting therapy is recommended.We recommend treating an acute first episode of depression for at least 6-9 months and consideration of longer treatment for patients with residual symptoms, very severe or highly co-morbid major depression, ongoing episodes or recurrent episodes. Psychosocial interventions aimed at improving adherence, quality of life and function are also recommended. For patients with schizophrenia and subsyndromal depression, a similar approach is recommended.Psychosis accompanying major depression in patients without schizophrenia is common in elderly patients and is considered a primary mood disorder; for these reasons, it is an important syndrome to consider in the differential diagnosis of older patients with mood and thought disturbance. Treatment for this condition has involved electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as well as combinations of antidepressant and antipsychotic medications. Recent evidence suggests that combination treatment may not be any more effective than antidepressant treatment alone and ECT may be more efficacious overall.

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