Depression in the elderly – a comprehensive review

 Depresia în rândul vârstnicilor – un review comprehensiv

First published: 29 septembrie 2023

Editorial Group: MEDICHUB MEDIA

DOI: 10.26416/Psih.74.3.2023.8664


Depression is a common mental health disorder that affects individuals of all ages, including the elderly population. This article aims to provide a comprehensive review of depression in the elderly, exploring its prevalence, risk factors, clinical manifestations and management strategies. By synthesizing the current literature and empirical studies, this review highlights the importance of identifying and addressing depression in the elderly, as well as the need for tailored interventions and support systems. The findings underscore the significance of a multidimensional approach involving healthcare professionals, caregivers and society at large to effectively combat depression in the elderly population. Effective management strategies are essential for improving outcomes in elderly individuals with depression. Collaborative care models and a multidisciplinary approach have gained recognition as effective strategies for addressing depression in the elderly.

depression, elderly, mental health, prevalence, risk factors, clinical manifestations, management strategies


Depresia este o afecţiune a sănătăţii mintale care poate afecta indivizii în orice moment al vieţii, inclusiv persoanele în vârstă. Acest articol îşi propune să realizeze o revizuire cuprinzătoare a literaturii privind depresia în rândul populaţiei în vârstă, despre prevalenţa, factorii de risc, manifestările clinice şi strategiile de tratament în cadrul acestei afecţiuni. Sintetizând date din literatura medicală actuală şi studii medicale empirice, această lucrare scoate în evidenţă importanţa identificării şi abordării terapeutice a depresiei în rândul populaţiei în vârstă, cât şi necesitatea existenţei sistemelor de suport şi a terapiilor personalizate pentru patologia amintită. Rezultatele evidenţiază importanţa abordării acestei afecţiuni pe mai multe planuri, incluzând specialiştii în sănătate, persoanele responsabile de îngrijire, cât şi societatea în ansamblu, pentru a face posibil succesul terapeutic în cazul acestor pacienţi. Strategiile terapeutice sunt esenţiale pentru îmbunătăţirea prognosticului persoanelor în vârstă ce suferă de depresie. Colaborarea în îngrijire şi abordarea multidisciplinară sunt recunoscute a fi strategii eficiente în managementul depresiei la vârstnic.


Depression is a prevalent mental health condition observed frequently in the elderly, which can significantly impact their overall well-being. Understanding the prevalence of depression in the elderly is essential for healthcare professionals to provide effective care to this vulnerable population. Despite its impact on the quality of life of older adults, the prevalence of depression in this population remains understudied and poorly understood.

Depression is highly prevalent among the elderly population, making it one of the most common mental health issues they face. According to a meta-analysis conducted in the United States of America, the estimated prevalence of depression in the elderly ranges from 7% to 36%, depending on the diagnostic criteria used in the studies(1). Additionally, a systematic review including studies from diverse regions worldwide reported a prevalence range of 2% to 49%(2). Numerous factors contribute to the varying prevalence rates of depression in the elderly, including age, gender, marital status, socioeconomic status and health status. Age is one of the most important factors that increase the prevalence of depression in the elderly population. Data proved that the prevalence of depression increases with advancing in age(3).

Risk factors for depression in the elderly

Identifying the risk factors that increase the probability of developing depression in the elderly is crucial for the early detection, prevention and targeted interventions. Several demographic factors have been identified as potential risk factors for depression in the elderly. Advanced age has consistently been associated with an increased risk of depression(4). Women also exhibit a higher prevalence of depression compared to men(5). Other demographic variables, such as low education level, minority status and living alone, have been linked to an elevated risk of depression in the elderly(6).

Biological risk factors for depression in the elderly include genetic predisposition, medical illnesses and changes in neurochemistry. A study found that a family history of depression is a significant risk factor for depression in the elderly(7). Medical illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer, are also associated with an increased risk of depression in the elderly(8). Changes in neurochemistry, such as a decrease in serotonin levels, are also linked to an increased risk of depression in the elderly(9).

Psychological risk factors for depression in the elderly include stressful life events, cognitive decline and personality traits. Stressful life events, such as bereavement, retirement or chronic illness, can trigger or exacerbate depression in the elderly(10). Cognitive decline, such as memory impairment and executive dysfunction, is also associated with an increased risk of depression in the elderly(11). Personality traits, such as neuroticism and introversion, are also linked to an increased risk of depression in the elderly.

Depression in elderly people can be caused by multiple factors, such as chronic health conditions (most common pathologies that appear with advancing in age are diabetes, heart conditions and arthritis), social isolation (old age can bring many losses like death of family, spouse or close friends, mobility problems and retirement), loss of independence (this can lead to feelings of worthlessness and helplessness), or medications (beta-blockers and corticosteroids are frequently prescribed to elderly). All of the above may increase the risk of developing depression. Genetic factors can also increase the probability of developing depressive disorders in elderly patients.

Clinical manifestations of depression
in the elderly

The psychological symptoms of depression in the elderly may include persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and excessive guilt. However, it is important to note that the elderly often present with atypical features of depression. These features can include a higher prevalence of cognitive impairment, characterized by reduced concentration, memory problems and indecisiveness(12). Additionally, the elderly may experience increased irritability, agitation and anxiety as predominant symptoms of depression(13).

Depression in the elderly can also manifest through physical symptoms. Sleep disturbances are common, with older adults experiencing insomnia or hypersomnia(14). Changes in appetite and weight, often resulting in unintentional weight loss or gain, may also be observed. Fatigue and reduced energy levels are frequent complaints in elderly individuals with depression(15). Psychomotor changes may be evident, including either psychomotor agitation or retardation.

The elderly with depression frequently present with somatic complaints, which can complicate the diagnosis. These complaints may include unexplained physical pain, such as headaches, backaches and stomach aches(16). Additionally, they may report various gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, constipation or decreased appetite(17). Somatic complaints can lead to a delay in recognizing underlying depression and may require a comprehensive assessment to differentiate between physical and psychological causes.

The symptoms of depression in the elderly can be similar to those experienced by younger people, but they may be more difficult to recognize due to the age-related changes in physical and cognitive function.

Elderly patients with depression can have symptoms like losing interest in hobbies and activities, changes in appetite and weight, sleep disorders, fatigue, tiredness, difficulty in concentration and taking decisions, feeling helpless and hopeless. Also, depression can manifest in physical conditions such as pain and aches, digestive problems and headaches.

Management strategies for depression
in the elderly

Pharmacological interventions are an integral part to the management of depression in the elderly, with antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), being commonly prescribed. These medications have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing depressive symptoms and enhancing overall functioning in elderly individuals(18). Nevertheless, healthcare providers must exercise caution when prescribing antidepressants to this population, considering potential side effects and drug-drug interactions. Close monitoring, personalized dosing and thoughtful selection of medications are paramount to achieve optimal treatment outcomes.

Nonpharmacological interventions are an essential component of the comprehensive management strategies for depression in the elderly. These approaches can be used alone or in conjunction with pharmacotherapy to enhance treatment outcomes. Some nonpharmacological interventions for depression in the elderly include psychotherapy. Evidence supports the effectiveness of various psychotherapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT) and problem-solving therapy (PST), in treating depression in the elderly(19). Psychotherapy helps address negative thinking patterns, improve coping skills and enhance social support, thereby reducing depressive symptoms.

Nonpharmacological strategies, such as exercise, dietary changes and social support, can also be beneficial in managing depression in the elderly(20). Exercise has been found to improve mood and reduce depressive symptoms in the elderly. A healthy diet, including foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, may also have a positive effect on mood. Social support, through participation in social activities or joining support groups, can also improve mood and reduce feelings of isolation.

Collaborative care and multidisciplinary approach

A collaborative care model that involves a multidisciplinary team has shown promise in the management of depression in the elderly. This approach ensures effective coordination among primary care physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other healthcare professionals. Collaborative care models improve access to mental health services, enhance treatment adherence and provide a holistic approach to management.

Collaborative care models involve the integration of mental health specialists, primary care physicians and other healthcare providers to improve patient outcomes. Collaborative care has been shown to be effective in improving depressive symptoms in the elderly population(21). Unutzer et al., in a randomized controlled trial, showed that collaborative care was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms among elderly patients(22). In this model, mental health specialists work with primary care physicians to provide patient-centered care that includes medication management, psychotherapy and patient education.

The multidisciplinary approach involves the collaboration of psychologists, social workers and other healthcare professionals to address the complex needs of elderly patients with depression. The multidisciplinary approach has been shown to improve outcomes in the management of depression in the elderly population(23). Katon et al. showed that a multidisciplinary team approach, that included a psychologist, social worker and nurse practitioner, was effective in reducing depressive symptoms in elderly patients with depression(24). This approach involved a comprehensive assessment of the patient’s physical and mental health, medication management, psychotherapy and social support.


Understanding the causes, symptoms and treatment options for depression in the elderly is essential for improving their quality of life. Collaborative care models and the multidisciplinary approach have been shown to be effective in reducing depressive symptoms in elderly patients with depression. More studies are needed to determine the optimal methods of multidisciplinary intervention.

Conflict of interest: none declared  
Financial support: none declared
This work is permanently accessible online free of charge and published under the CC-BY. 



  1. Byers AL, Yaffe K, Covinsky KE, Friedman MB, Bruce ML. High occurrence of depression and anxiety symptoms in community-dwelling older adults with low socioeconomic status: the health, aging, and body composition study. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010;67(6):569-576.

  2. Almeida OP, Alfonso H, Pirkis J, Kerse N, Sim M, Flicker L. A systematic review of the prevalence of depression in older people in low- and middle-income countries. J Affect Disord. 2012;138(3):175-184.

  3. Steffens DC, Skoog I, Norton MC, et al. Prevalence of depression and its treatment in an elderly population: the Cache County study. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2000;57(6):601-607

  4. Luppa M, Sikorski C, Luck T, et al. Age- and gender-specific prevalence of depression in latest-life – systematic review and meta-analysis. J Affect Disord. 2012;136(3):212-221.

  5. Beekman AT, Copeland JR, Prince MJ. Review of community prevalence of depression in later life. Br J Psychiatry. 1999;174(4):307-311.

  6. Fiske A, Wetherell JL, Gatz M. Depression in older adults. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2009;5:363-389.

  7. Lyness JM, Yu Q, Tang W, Tu X, Conwell Y. Risks for depression onset in primary care elderly patients: potential targets for preventive interventions. Am J Psychiatry. 2009;166(12):1375-1383.

  8. Steffens DC. Depression and Aging: A Complementary Role of Neuroimaging and Neuropsychology. J Geriatr Psychiatry Neurol. 2017;30(4):194-199.

  9. Butters MA, Young JB, Lopez O, et al. Pathways linking late-life depression to persistent cognitive impairment and dementia. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2008;10(3):345-357.

  10. Hahm BJ, Cho MJ, Bae JN, et al. Age at onset of major depression in a Korean community sample: impact of psychosocial stressors. Psychol Med. 2008;38(3):407-415.

  11. Diniz BS, Butters MA, Albert SM, Dew MA, Reynolds 3rd CF. Late-life depression and risk of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: systematic review and meta-analysis of community-based cohort studies. Br J Psychiatry. 2013;202(5):329-335.

  12. Alexopoulos GS. Depression in the elderly. Lancet. 2005;365(9475):1961-1970.

  13. Conwell Y, Forbes NT, Cox C, Caine ED. Validation of a measure of physical illness burden at autopsy: the Cumulative Illness Rating Scale. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1993;41(1):38-41.

  14. Jorm AF. Does old age reduce the risk of anxiety and depression? A review of epidemiological studies across the adult life span. Psychol Med. 2000;30(1):11-22.

  15. Lenze EJ, Rogers JC, Martire LM, et al. The association of late-life depression and anxiety with physical disability: a review of the literature and prospectus for future research. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2001;9(2):113-135.

  16. Unützer J. Late-life depression. N Engl J Med. 2007;357(22):2269-2276.

  17. Almeida OP, Alfonso H, Flicker L, Hankey GJ, Norman PE. Cardiovascular disease, depression and mortality: the Health In Men Study. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2012;20(5):433-440.

  18. Koenig AM, Butters MA. Pharmacotherapy of late-life major depression: progress and limitations. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017;19(11):80.

  19. Reynolds CF 3rd, Dew MA, Pollock BG, et al. Maintenance treatment of major depression in old age. N Engl J Med. 2006;354(11):1130-1138.

  20. Mather AS, Rodriguez C, Guthrie MF, McHarg AM, Reid IC, McMurdo ME. Effects of exercise on depressive symptoms in older adults with poorly responsive depressive disorder: randomised controlled trial. Br J Psychiatry. 2002;180:411-5.

  21. Kharicha K, Iliffe S, Harari D, Swift C, Gillmann G, Stuck AE. Health risk appraisal in older people 2: the implications for clinicians and commissioners of social isolation risk in older people. Br J Gen Pract. 2007;57(537):277-82.

  22. Unutzer J, Katon W, Callahan CM, et al. Collaborative care management of late-life depression in the primary care setting: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2002;288(22):2836-45.

  23. Archer J, Bower P, Gilbody S, et al. Collaborative care for depression and anxiety problems. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;10:CD006525.

  24. Katon WJ, Lin EH, Von Korff M, et al. Collaborative care for patients with depression and chronic illnesses. N Engl J Med. 2010;363(27):2611-20.

Articole din ediţiile anterioare

RESEARCH | Ediţia 2 73 / 2023

Mental health and self-esteem correlated with the academic achievements of youths from Sri Lankan schools

M. Firose, M.M. Musthafa, F.M.M.T. Marikar

Every human being experiences different phases of life in which the youth period is crucial, valuable and productive. It is also a settling down ag...

30 iunie 2023

Depressive disorder in the context of cardiovascular disease

Raluca Pretorian

The 12-month prevalence of the mental disorders in the general European population is between 27% and 38%. All mental disorders are associated with...

27 aprilie 2023
ABSTRACTS | Ediţia 2 77 / 2024

Abstracts of the National Conference Medical Days of “Prof. Dr. Al. Obregia” Clinical Hospital of Psychiatry

A campaign is a highly focused project with a clear objective that takes place within a well-defined timeframe.

28 iunie 2024
COMUNICAT | Ediţia 4 59 / 2019

EPA Statement for The World Mental Health Day Working together to prevent suicide

10th of October 2019 – On the occasion of today’s World Mental Health Day, in addition to the key messages delivered on 10th of September, the Euro...

15 noiembrie 2019