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Fewer older adults report depression symptoms -- except for one group


People older than 50 may be struggling less with depression than they used to -- with some exceptions. 

A study by the University of Michigan finds that fewer older adults reported symptoms of depression between 1998 and 2008 than in the previous ten years.

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found a pronounced drop in depression symptoms in people in the 80 to 84 age group.

But the findings were mixed: People between 55 and 59 -- called "late middle-agers" -- were more likely to say they felt blue. One possible reason: That age group may be out of the work force but not yet covered by Medicare or other health insurance, and may therefore have fewer treatment resources.

Dr. Kara Zivin, assistant professor of psychiatry in the U-M Medical School, was lead author of the ongoing study.

"There are things that are going well, some things we need to be concerned about. Depression is going to remain a concern for older adults," Zivin says. "The overall larger goal is to try to get an understanding about disease burden and costs of disease and treatment over time for older adults."

Zivin says the study measures depression symptoms, with people who report experiencing four out of eight possible symptoms considered at significant risk.

"That's the number that went down," Zivin says.

But the number of people who reported six or more symptoms went up.

"We know when older adults talk about their depressive symptoms, it typically takes place in primary care settings," Zivin says "Not as many older people in any of these age ranges go to psychiatrists or other mental health professionals very often.

"But in this case, it was a study of people answering a wide variety of questions on their overall health and well-being."

Zivin says depression can worsen symptoms of other chronic disorders, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

"Having a good handle on what is going on with depression and who we need to target remains important," Zivin says. "When you're talking about a potential expansion of access to insurance, many people that will be newly gaining insurance have struggled with mental disorders, so making sure they have access to needed care remains important.

Researchers used data from  the Health and Retirement Study, a national sample of older Americans.

[Reference:  “Trends in Depressive Symptom Burden Among Older Adults in the United States from 1998 to 2008,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, July, 2013, DOI:10.1007/s11606-013-2533-y. ]