Intended for healthcare professionals


Antidepressants for old people

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 25 September 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:849

GPs should become familiar with one or two antidepressants from each class

  1. R C Baldwin, consultant old age psychiatrist (
  1. Manchester Royal Infirmary, Manchester M13 9BX
  2. Moorside Unit, Trafford General Hospital, Manchester M41 5SL
  3. Department of Psychiatry, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 4LP
  4. Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham NG7 2UH
  5. Southern General Hospital, Glasgow G51 4TF

    EDITOR—Livingston and Livingston cast a sceptical eye over the newer antidepressants in relation to the treatment needs of older people with depression.1 Their editorial contained omissions and inaccuracies. They state that subjects aged over 64 with physical disease were excluded from “all the trials cited” in the editorial yet quote research (their reference 5) that addressed precisely this group.

    Likewise, they claim that fluoxetine is the “only newer antidepressant that has been evaluated clinically in depressed patients with organic brain disease” but cite two papers, one concerning citalopram and the other moclobemide, that have evaluated depression in old people with dementia. They overlook important sources of information—for example, the comprehensive report of the National Institutes of Health in 1991, recently updated2—and they lump together all older people, when clearly there are important differences between a fit 65 year old and a frail 85 year old.

    The debate they are trying to promote is a tired one. Older people are prone to side effects and have contraindications to a large number of drugs (including some older tricyclic antidepressants), so it makes sense to have a choice; that is precisely what the newer antidepressants offer to older patients. Having a choice improves outcome. In one study of older people, sequential antidepressant regimens that used different classes of antidepressants resulted in a recovery rate of over 80%.3 The newer antidepressants are here to stay. The important questions are not whether they should be used at all but their place alongside psychological approaches in cases resistant to treatment with a first line antidepressant and in the prevention of recurrence

    A more helpful message would be to encourage practitioners who treat older patients to become familiar with one or two antidepressants from each class, as recommended by the Royal Colleges of …

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