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Hosted by Editor in Chief Lorenzo Norris, MD, Psychcast features mental health care professionals discussing the issues that most affect psychiatry.

Feb 5, 2020

George T. Grossberg, MD, conducts a Masterclass on treating mood disorders in geriatric patients from the CP/AACP Psychiatry Update 2019 meeting in Las Vegas. The meeting was sponsored by Global Academy for Medical Education and Current Psychiatry.

Dr. Grossberg is the Samuel W. Fordyce professor and director of geriatric psychiatry at St. Louis University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Later, Renee Kohanski, MD, discusses the first thing psychiatrists can do for patients.

Take-home points from Dr. Grossberg:

  • The prevalence of major depressive disorder among older adults who reside in the community is similar to that of the general population (6%). In nursing homes, the prevalence of significant clinical depression is close to 25%.
  • Depression in older adults in long-term care facilities is underrecognized and undertreated. Risk factors for depression include advanced age (80-90 years), loneliness and lack of social support, painful conditions, frailty, and medical comorbidities. Medications that are central nervous system depressants, such as opiates and benzodiazepines, also can contribute to depression. Alcohol can also be a depressant. Depression in the face of cognitive impairment is extremely common and can even speed cognitive decline.
  • Apathy, defined as lack of motivation, can look like depression. However, depression will have amotivation coupled with vegetative symptoms, such as disrupted sleep and loss of appetite, and mood changes, such as sadness and tearfulness. Low-dose stimulants are effective for apathy, but antidepressants are not; so, it’s important to differentiate the two.
  • Undiagnosed and untreated depression contributes to a significant degree of morbidity because it can slow recovery in rehabilitative settings and impair adherence to essential medications. Treating depression also can improve pain control by making it more tolerable as a somatic symptom.
  • Individuals older than 65 years account for more than 20% of all completed suicides in the United States. Psychological autopsy studies suggest that many of these individuals had undiagnosed depression.
  • Clinicians should not shy away from treating geriatric patients for depression with medication and interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. With pharmacotherapy, start low, go slow, and titrate up to a therapeutic dose. Older adults may take longer, up to 8-12 weeks, to respond to SSRIs, so it’s imperative not to give up on medications too soon.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy is the most effective treatment for severe depression in geriatric patients. Some consider advanced age an indication for ECT; medical comorbidities are not a contraindication for ECT.
  • It is unclear how effective ketamine is in older patients, but it deserves consideration.
  • Prompt diagnosis and treatment of mood disorders is paramount in patients of advanced age and those living in long-term care facilities. Treating depression in the older patient also improves the quality of life for caregivers and professional staff.


Birer RB et al. Depression in later life: A diagnostic and therapeutic challenge.  Am Fam Physician. 2004 May 15;69(10):2375-82.

Sjoberg L et al. Prevalence of depression: Comparisons of different depression definitions in population-based samples of older adults.  J Affect Disord. 2017 Oct 15;221:123-31.

Grossberg GT et al. Rapid depression assessment in geriatric patients. Clin Geriatr Med. 2017 Aug;33(3):383-91.


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