Why Older Depressed People Do Not Respond As Well To Treatment

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Scientists may have discovered why older people with depression do not seem to respond as well to treatment than younger people with depression and it’s all about emotion.

The study was carried out by Toronto’s Baycrest and Toronto University and was led by Dr Linda Mah, and what the researchers found was that older people suffering from depression don’t react to emotional signals in the same way that younger people do, in other words they are less affected by sad, happy, or neutral faces.

“In our study we found significant differences between older depressed subjects and older healthy subjects in how they emotionally respond to and perceive facial expressions,” said principal investigator Dr. Linda Mah, a clinician-scientist in the Mood Clinic at Baycrest.

To date most of the studies conducted into depression in the older population have concentrated mostly on cognitive decline, which would seem obvious, but “Our data suggest that we need to also focus on emotion to better understand the neurobiology of late-life depression, so we can treat it more effectively and help people feel better longer,” said Dr. Mah.

Dr Mah and her colleagues compared 11 patients with major depression who were not receiving medication and aged between 60 and 87 to 11 healthy patients in the same age range and asked the two groups to look at photographs of faces featuring happy, sad, fearful or neutral expressions.

First of all the participants were asked to comment on the physical features of the faces and then asked to identify the emotional expression on the faces

They patients without depression were around 16 percent slower in making their judgments about the faces that were happy or sad compared to the neutral faces which would suggest that they were impacted by the emotional expressions.

On the other hand, the depressed patients showed no difference in the time they took to respond suggesting that they were less sensitive to the emotional expressions.

When asked to label the expressions, the depressed patients had a lot more difficulty with the neutral faces and often labelled them as happy or sad or fearful.

Previous studies using younger patients suffering from depression have found that younger people tend to see the expressions in a more negative light than healthy controls whereas in this study it would seem the older depressed patient has an impaired ability to read expressions, which of course carries implications for social interactions later in life.

This study was a small preliminary study but future studies could possibly identify more effective treatment options for the older depressed patient.

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