Doctors fail to recognise depressive symptoms in more than 40 per cent of older patients

Doctors fail to recognise depressive symptoms in more than 40 per cent of older patients who have the illness, according to ANU research.

Dr Jeff Looi, a Senior Lecturer at the ANU Medical School, said that while 15 per cent of Australians over 65 have depression, many are not diagnosed by their GP.

Dr Looi and research psychologist Ms Lee-Fay Low are now seeking older people to participate in a study that aims to find out more about first-onset late life depression, which is thought to have a greater biological basis than depression in younger people. It has been linked to heart disease, stroke and changes in the structure of the brain.

Dr Looi’s team of psychologists and psychiatrists are comparing community volunteers who have never had depression with people who have experienced first onset late-life depression.

“We are studying both the physical and mental aspects of late-life depression. Participants are asked about their mental health, physical health and memory and problem solving. They also undergo blood tests and an MRI scan of their brain,” Dr Looi said.

“We need to better understand brain changes that underpin late-life depression, as this will tell us about the roles of vascular disease, nutrition and brain ageing. There are theoretical reasons to think that low levels of folic acid, vitamins B6 and B12 may also be involved.

“Late life depression can be treated successfully with psychotherapy and antidepressants, so improving recognition both by GPs and the community will make a big difference in helping treat this illness.

“Symptoms of depression in old age are similar to those in younger adults. These include: sadness or moodiness out of proportion to recent events; increased restlessness and irritability; loss of interest and loss of pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed, including food, sex and hobbies; increased health complaints such as tiredness and pain; and withdrawal from social settings.

“In older people these changes are often attributed to ageing, instead of being recognised as symptoms of a treatable disease.

“We need to educate older people, their families and friends about depression. Only half of older people with depression describe their symptoms to their GPs. This older generation particularly were brought up to ‘pull up their socks and soldier on’ instead of asking for help.”

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