Mary A. Norman MD
Mary E. Whooley MD
Kewchang Lee MD
ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS
The prevalence of major depression is estimated at 1–2% for elders in the community and 10–12% for those in primary care settings. However, even in the absence of major depression as defined by Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition; DSM-IV) criteria, up to 27% of elders experience substantial depressive symptoms that may be relieved with intervention. For institutionalized elders, the rates of major depression are much higher: 12% for hospitalized elders and 43% for permanently institutionalized elders.
Women are twice as likely to experience major depression as men. Other risk factors include prior episodes or a personal family history of depression, lack of social support, use of alcohol or other substances, and a recent loss of a loved one. Several medical conditions are also associated with an increased risk of depression, including Parkinson's disease, recent myocardial infarction, and cerebrovascular accident. These conditions share common threads of loss of control of body or mind, increasing dependence on others, and increased social isolation.
Depression is associated with poorer self-care and slower recovery after acute medical illnesses. It can accelerate cognitive and physical decline and leads to an increased use and cost of health care services. Among depressed elderly who have had a stroke, rehabilitation efforts are less effective and mortality rates are significantly higher.
Major depression is defined as depressed mood or loss of interest in nearly all activities (or both) for at least 2 weeks, accompanied by a minimum of 3 or 4 of the following symptoms (for a total of at least 5 symptoms): insomnia or hypersomnia, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, fatigue or loss of energy, diminished ability to think or concentrate, substantial change in appetite or weight, psychomotor agitation or retardation, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide (Table 14-1). Severity of depression varies and is important in determining optimal treatment and prognosis. Patients with less severe depressive symptoms who do not meet criteria for major depression may also benefit from psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy.
Elderly patients can have fewer mood and more somatic complaints, which are often difficult to differentiate from underlying medical conditions. Special screening tools that consider this difference have been developed for the elderly population. The Geriatric Depression Scale is widely used and validated in many different languages. Its shortened 15-item scale (Table 14-2) is often used for ease of administration. A separate 2-item scale consisting of 2 questions about depressed mood and anhedonia has also been shown effective in detecting depression in the elderly (see Table 14-2). Screening alone has not been found to benefit patients with unrecognized depression, but in combination with patient support programs, such as frequent nursing follow-up and close monitoring of adherence to medication, it improves outcomes.
Table 14-1. Diagnostic criteria for depression.
Diagnosing depression in the elderly can be challenging because of the presence of multiple comorbid conditions. Many patients with mild cognitive impairment may have predominantly depressive symptoms. With effective treatment of depression, their cognitive performance frequently improves; however, these patients still are at high risk for progression to dementia within the next 3 years. Bereavement often manifests with depressed mood, which may be appropriate given a patient's recent loss. However, if depressive symptoms
persist longer than 2-3 months, a diagnosis of major depression should be considered.
Table 14-2. Geriatric depression scale (short form).a
Elderly patients who experience delirium caused by an underlying medical illness may have mood changes. Other comorbid psychiatric illnesses must also be considered, such as anxiety disorder, substance abuse disorder, or personality disorders. Patients with bipolar disorder or psychotic disorders may have depressed mood; thus, it is important to ask patients about prior manic episodes, hallucinations, or delusions.
Depression can also be confused with other medical conditions. Fatigue and weight loss, for example, may be associated with diabetes mellitus, thyroid disease, underlying malignancy, or anemia. Patients who have Parkinson's disease may first present with depressed mood or flat affect. Sleep disturbances as a result of pain, nocturia, or sleep apnea may also lead to daytime fatigue and depressed mood.
A complete history and physical examination, including assessment of cognitive status, is critical in the evaluation of depression in the elderly. Because depression is a clinical diagnosis, no routine laboratory tests are indicated. Testing may be tailored to each patient based on their underlying comorbidities and presenting symptoms. A complete review of medications, both prescription and over the counter, is essential. Medications such as benzodiazepines, narcotics, glucocorticoids, interferon, and reserpine may cause depressive symptoms. Contrary to earlier beliefs, β-blockers have not been proven to cause depression. Screening for alcohol and other substance use or addiction is another important part of the medical history. Substance use can interfere with compliance and contribute to high relapse rates, although active substance abuse should not preclude treatment for depression. For patients who struggle with addiction, “dual diagnosis” programs (alcohol or other substance dependence and psychiatric disorder) may be optimal.
Educating patients and families about depression is the cornerstone of successful treatment. Depression continues to carry a stigma in many communities and cultures. Appropriate education can help patients understand that their condition results from a combination of inherited factors and personal and environmental stressors. Providers should also emphasize that physical symptoms and sleep disturbances are characteristic of depression; thus, relief of depression should make other physical symptoms more bearable. Encouraging physical activity with a family member or friend can be a simple, effective step toward improving social support and overall well-being.
Involving families in the care of elderly patients is crucial for both diagnosing depression and developing an effective treatment plan. Caregivers of elderly patients, especially if impaired physically or cognitively, may be experiencing considerable stress and depression as well. Many programs are available that may alleviate stress and promote positive social interactions for patients. Adult day programs, senior centers, and senior support groups can be helpful resources for patients and their families, and geriatric social workers can assist with finding appropriate programs for each patient. Caregiver support groups and formal respite programs are also available in most communities.
SSRIs are safe in overdose and have no known adverse cardiac effects. Thus, they are a reasonable first choice in treating elderly patients with depression. Other agents also offer unique advantages: Mirtazapine stimulates appetite and can help with insomnia, and bupropion can reduce craving in smoking cessation. Secondary amine TCAs (eg, nortriptyline, desipramine) can offer beneficial effects for patients with neuropathic pain, detrussor instability, or insomnia. Venlafaxine, which has serotonergic and noradrenergic activity, is another effective alternative that is also useful in treating anxiety and neuropathic pain.
level. If minimal or no benefit occurs by 4-6 weeks and side effects are tolerable, the dose should be increased. The full effect may not be seen for 8-12 weeks in elderly patients. If a therapeutic dose has been reached and maintained for 6 weeks and the patient has not adequately responded, one should consider switching to a different agent or augmenting with an additional agent. Although serum drug levels are not useful for SSRIs, levels of TCAs can be measured to assess adherence.
Table 14-3. Selected antidepressants for use in elderly patients.a
Side effects differ depending on the type of antidepressant (Table 14-4). Most side effects lessen within 1–4 weeks from the start of therapy, but weight gain and sexual dysfunction may last longer. For the SSRIs, the most common side effects include nausea and sexual dysfunction. Sexual dysfunction may respond to treatment with sildenafil (Viagra), but switching antidepressant mediation or lowering the dose of SSRI and augmenting with an additional agent may be necessary. The TCAs have more anticholinergic properties and may lead to dry mouth, orthostasis, and urinary retention.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), problem-solving therapy (PST), and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) are effective treatments for major depression either alone or in combination with pharmacotherapy. CBT focuses on identifying negative thoughts and behaviors that contribute to depression and replacing them with positive thoughts and rewarding activities. PST teaches patients techniques to identify routine problems, generate multiple solutions, and implement the best strategy. IPT focuses on recognizing and attempting to resolve personal stressors and relationship conflicts that lead to depressive symptoms.
Typically, these therapies should be continued once or twice weekly for 6–16 sessions. In patients with severe depression, combination therapy with psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy is superior to either treatment alone. Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies have not proved effective for treatment of major depression.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is an effective treatment for geriatric depression. Response rates for refractory depression are quite high at 73% for the young-old (60–74 years) and 67% for the old-old (> 75 years). Typical side effects include confusion and anterograde memory impairment, which may persist for 6 mo. ECT may be first-line therapy for severely melancholic patients, for those at high risk for suicide, and for medically
ill patients whose hepatic, renal, or cardiac diseases preclude the use of other antidepressants.
Table 14-4. Frequency of side effects associated with antidepressant medications.a
Psychiatric consultation is recommended for those patients with a history of mania or psychosis, for those who have not responded to a trial of 1 or 2 medicines, and for those who require combination therapy or ECT. Immediate psychiatric evaluation is required for any patients who, after probing, admit to having active plans to harm themselves. Risk factors for suicide in elderly patients with major depression include older age; male gender; marital status of single, divorced, or separated and without children; personal or family history of a suicide attempt; drug or alcohol abuse; severe anxiety or stress; physical illness; and a specific suicide plan with access to firearms or other lethal means (eg, stockpiled medications). If medications and weapons are present and cannot be removed from the patient's home, then consider adding “weapon at home” to the patient's problem list to highlight potential suicide risk.
Elderly patients must be informed that antidepressants usually take 4–6 weeks, but may take 8 weeks or longer, to have a full therapeutic effect and that only about 50% of patients respond to the first antidepressant prescribed. Patients who have not responded after an adequate trial of medication or who have had intolerable side effects may switch either to another medication within the same class (different SSRI) or to a different class of medications. When switching among SSRIs or between TCAs and SSRIs, no wash-out period is required (with the exception of switching from fluoxetine, because of its long half-life). However, abrupt cessation of shorter acting antidepressants (eg, citalopram, paroxetine, sertraline, or venlafaxine) may result in a discontinuation syndrome with tinnitus, vertigo, or paresthesias. Referral for psychiatric consultation is recommended if a patient fails to respond to 2 different medication trials.
Once remission has been achieved, antidepressants should be continued for at least 6 mo to reduce the risk of relapse. Patients who are at high risk of relapse (2 or more episodes of depression in the past or major depression lasting more than 2 years) should be continued on therapy for 2 years or possibly indefinitely. Many recommend lifelong therapy, even if it is the patient's first episode of major depression and especially if depression is severe and related to life changes that are not expected to improve. Follow-up visits should be arranged at 3- to 6-mo intervals. If symptoms return, the medications should be adjusted or changed or the patient referred for psychiatric consultation.
If the patient and physician agree to a trial discontinuation of therapy, medications should be tapered over a 2- to 3-mo period, with at least monthly follow-up by telephone or in person. If symptoms return, the patient should be restarted on medications for at least 3–6 mo.
When patients fail to respond to adequate trials of 2 medications for major depression, a diagnosis of treatment-resistant depression is considered. One must review the case and consider that the original diagnosis may be inaccurate. What first appeared as depressive symptoms may be a manifestation of underlying anxiety or cognitive impairment that is not being adequately treated. One must then verify that the patient actually received the medication that was prescribed. A simple investigation may reveal that the patient never filled the prescription or was never given medication by caregivers. Finally, one must ensure that the patient had adequate trials of medications (6–8 weeks) and that this trial was performed at a therapeutic dose.
Any patient who has had an adequate trial of 2 different medications without acceptable response should be referred to a psychiatrist for augmentation therapy. Lithium may be used in low doses in the elderly with careful monitoring of side effects. Small doses of liothyronine (T3) can be used safely in euthyroid patients. In addition, combinations of 2 antidepressant medications may be synergistic, with low doses of 1 antidepressant enhancing response to an antidepressant of another class.
Depression is often a chronic or relapsing and remitting disease. Greater severity of depression, persistence of
symptoms, and a higher number of prior episodes are the best predictors of recurrence. The lifetime risk of suicide in patients with major depression is 7% for men and 1% for women.
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
Hirschfeld RM et al: The National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association Consensus Statement on the Undertreatment of Depression. JAMA 1997;277:333. [PMID: 9002497]
Sable JA et al: Late-Life Depression: How to identify its symptoms and provide effective treatment. Geriatrics 2002;57:18. [PMID: 11851203]
Whooley MA et al: Management depression in medical outpatients. N Engl J Med 2000;343:1942. [PMID: 11136266]
Wilson K et al: Antidepressants versus placebo for the depressed elderly (Cochrane Review). In The Cochrane Library (series 1). Update Software, 2003. [PMID: 114055969]
Many depressed elders contemplate suicide. Primary care providers must recognize the risk factors for suicide in patients with major depression: older age; male gender; being single, divorced, or separated and without children; personal or family history of a suicide attempt; drug or alcohol abuse; severe anxiety or stress; physical illness; and a specific suicide plan with access to firearms or other lethal means. Providers should ask patients whether they ever think of hurting themselves or taking their life. If the patient responds positively, then physicians should ask whether they have a plan and, if so, what it is. Asking patients about stockpiled medications or weapons in their home is also critical in assessing the suicide risk. If medications and weapons are present and cannot be removed from the patient's home, then consider adding “weapon at home” to the problem list to highlight potential suicide risk. Actively suicidal patients with intent and plan require emergent psychiatric evaluation either through emergency departments or local psychiatric crisis units.
ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS
Bipolar disorder is a less common diagnosis in the elderly, with an overall low prevalence of < 1% in community-dwelling elders but a 10% rate in some nursing home populations. Many patients with bipolar disease require special considerations as they age because of comorbid conditions and diminished ability to tolerate psychiatric medications. Late-onset mania is often secondary to underlying medical conditions and is frequently associated with neurological abnormalities such as cerebrovascular accident and cognitive impairment. Elderly patients with bipolar disorder have an increased 10-year mortality rate compared with those who have depression alone (70% vs. 30%).
DSM-IV criteria for bipolar disorder include those for major depressive episode (see Table 14-1) and for manic episode, which is defined as a distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood lasting at least 1 week and with ≥ 3 of the following symptoms: inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, pressured speech, racing thoughts, distractibility, increase in goal-directed activity or psychomotor agitation, excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences. The presence of mania is key to the differentiation between depressive disorder and bipolar disorder.
A variety of conditions may mimic a manic episode. Patients with dementia, particularly frontotemporal dementia, may be disinhibited and hypersexual. Brain tumors, cerebrovascular accidents, and partial-complex seizures may also lead to bizarre, disinhibited behaviors. Elderly patients who are prone to delirium can have waxing and waning levels of consciousness with some periods of hyperarousal. In addition, some medications may have unexpected effects in older patients. Glucocorticoids, thyroxine, and methylphenidate may lead to acute mania. Even sedative medications (eg, benzodiazepines) may have a paradoxical effect in the elderly and lead to agitation. As in younger populations, substance intoxication or withdrawal from cocaine, alcohol, or amphetamines and endocrine disorders such as hyperthyroidism or pheochromocytoma can lead to symptoms consistent with mania.
Mood stabilizers have been the hallmark of treatment for bipolar disease. Valproic acid and carbamazepine are generally favored over lithium in the elderly because of lithium's side effect profile and narrow toxic-therapeutic window (Table 14-5). Antipsychotic medication can be used when psychotic features are present. In general, the newer antipsychotic agents such as olanzapine and risperidone are better tolerated by the elderly than the older neuroleptics with their extrapyramidal side effects and high risk of tardive dyskinesia, especially in women (Table 14-6). Olanzapine is approved as monotherapy for acute mania, although it does not have prophylactic effects against future manic episodes. Antidepressants are often used as an adjunct to mood stabilizers for patients with depression but should not be used alone because of the risk of transforming a depressive episode into a manic episode.
ANXIETY & STRESS DISORDERS
ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS
Table 14-5. Mood stabilizers.
The lifetime prevalence rate of panic disorder is 1.5–2%, increasing to 4% in the primary care setting. The rate among community-dwelling elders is < 1%. Depression is also present in 50–65% of patients with panic disorder; the suicide rate for these patients is 20% higher than that for depressed patients without panic disorder. Panic disorder may be associated with agoraphobia, which can be particularly disabling in the elderly.
A panic attack is defined as a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort with 4 or more of the following symptoms: palpitations, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, choking sensation, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, dizziness or unsteadiness, derealization or depersonalization, fear of losing control, and fear of dying. DSM-IV criteria include recurrent or unexpected panic attacks, with at least 1 of the attacks having been followed by ≥ 1 mo of at least 1 of the following: persistent concern about having additional attacks, worry about the implication of the attack or its consequences, or a significant change in behavior related to the attacks.
Because the likelihood of physical disease is much higher than in younger populations, panic disorder is more difficult to distinguish from other life-threatening events in elderly patients. Acute coronary syndromes, cardiac arrhythmias, acute bronchospasm, and pulmonary embolism may lead to symptoms consistent with panic attacks. Endocrine disorders, particularly hyperthyroidism and pheochromocytoma, can mimic panic disorder. In acutely hospitalized patients, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco withdrawal may present as agitation, worry, and other physical symptoms. Abrupt discontinuation of a short-acting antidepressant, anxiolytic, or narcotic medication may also trigger panic symptoms. Older patients who suffer from panic disorder
often have comorbid psychiatric diagnoses such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and depression.
Table 14-6. Commonly used antipsychotics.
CBT has been proven effective for the treatment of panic disorder. Patients often go into a complete remission after as few as 12 weekly sessions. CBT is particularly helpful in preventing relapse and treating agoraphobia. Antidepressants, particularly SSRIs and TCAs, are helpful. Benzodiazepines may also be used as a brief adjunctive therapy while awaiting the clinical response to antidepressants or CBT. Whenever possible, long-term therapy with benzodiazepines should be avoided because of the potential risk of falls, cognitive impairment, and dependence.
Perhaps the most important aspect of treatment is education for the patient and family. Understanding the symptoms of panic disorder and developing ways of coping are essential for effective management of the disease.
Social & Specific Phobias
ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS
The prevalence of phobias is 5–6% in the elderly. Phobias present with features similar to panic disorder but are triggered by a specific event. Late-onset phobias are often associated with a recent life event such as a fall or injury. Social phobias affect 3% of the elderly and can lead to increasing isolation. Simple phobias are thought to be more common than social phobias, affecting 5–12% of the general population.
Social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder) is defined by DSM-IV criteria as a marked and persistent fear of social situations. Exposure to these situations provoke anxiety and may lead to a panic attack. The patient realizes that the fear is excessive and either avoids the situation or endures it with great anxiety. The avoidance or anxiety associated with the situation interferes with the patient's normal routine, occupation, or relationships. Specific phobia is a fear of certain objects or situations with acknowledgment that the fear is unreasonable. Specific phobias may also impair a patient's ability to function normally.
In the elderly, new phobic symptoms may represent delusions associated with dementia or delirium. Patients with dementia or delirium are not typically aware of the irrational nature of their delusions in contrast to patients with phobia. Less common causes of phobia include brain tumors or cerebrovascular accidents. The psychiatric differential diagnosis of phobia includes depression, schizophrenia, and schizoid and avoidant personality disorders. Social phobia and alcohol dependence often coexist; therefore, probing for alcohol use is an important part of the assessment. Although both phobic disorders and panic disorder may present with
panic attacks, patients with phobias do not experience recurrent unexpected attacks; rather, their anxiety symptoms are always associated with a specific object or situation.
The first-line therapy for specific phobias is behavioral therapy. Techniques may include relaxation therapy, cognitive restructuring, and systematic exposure to the feared object or situation. Use of antidepressants, particularly SSRIs, may be beneficial for generalized social phobia. Beta-adrenergic antagonists such as propranolol may also be effective treatments when administered before a foreseeable feared event or situation. Benzodiazepine use may be necessary but in general should be used with caution because of adverse effects on balance and cognition. Most patients are able to adapt or overcome their phobias and can lead relatively normal lives; if not, they should be referred for evaluation by a mental health specialist.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS
Anxiety symptoms are often a normal reaction to the surrounding environment. Anxiety disorders tend to begin in early adulthood and continue throughout a patient's lifetime with periods of relapses and remissions. The lifetime prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder is 5%; estimates in elders range from 2–7%. Anxiety may increase in the elderly as a result of isolation, loss of independence, illness, disability, and bereavement.
The diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by the following according to DSM-IV criteria:
Diagnosing generalized anxiety in elders can be complicated because many underlying illnesses may have similar symptoms. The differential diagnosis for generalized anxiety disorder includes the physical illnesses discussed previously for panic disorder. In addition, chronic medication or substance use and subsequent withdrawal may lead to anxiety symptoms. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol are common culprits. Elderly patients are much more sensitive to commonly used over-the-counter medications such as pseudophedrine, which may cause restlessness, anxiety, and confusion. Up to 54% of patients who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder have comorbid depression. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, somatoform disorder, and personality disorders may also present with symptoms of anxiety. Psychiatric consultation should be initiated if the diagnosis is in question.
CBT is one of the most effective treatments for generalized anxiety disorder. Relaxation techniques and biofeedback may also alleviate symptoms. Several antidepressants (paroxetine, extended-release venlafaxine) also have significant anxiolytic properties and may be effective for both anxiety and depression. When depression and anxiety occur together, one should treat the depression first; doing so may improve the symptoms of both disorders. Anxiolytic medications such as buspirone (5–30 mg twice daily) may be effective. Benzodiazepines should be used with caution in the elderly because they can cause a paradoxical effect and may also lead to falls and cognitive impairment.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS
PTSD is associated with a lifetime prevalence of 1.2% in women and 0.5% in men. Symptoms of PTSD may persist into older age. In addition, symptoms can remain hidden until an older age when patients have new experiences (deaths, medical illness, disability) that trigger memories of former events or lose the capacity to compensate for lifelong symptoms because of cognitive impairment or other medical illness. However, some studies have shown that increased age may actually protect against the development of PTSD. Other protective factors include marriage, social support, and higher socioeconomic status.
Per DSM-IV criteria, the patient has been exposed to a traumatic event in which he or she experienced or witnessed an event outside the range of usual human experience. Symptoms may be grouped into 3 categories and may persist for > 1 mo.
Other anxiety disorders can present with symptoms of hyperarousal similar to those in patients with PTSD. Major depressive disorder and adjustment disorders can also present with numbing or avoidant symptoms. During a period of bereavement, patients can have visions or dreams about the deceased. Other psychotic disorders may be confused with PTSD, but patients with PTSD may also experience psychotic-like symptoms during severe episodes. Substance use or withdrawal may contribute to symptoms. Organic brain syndrome resulting from prior head injury may be associated with symptoms similar to those of PTSD; the presence of visual hallucinations is particularly suggestive of an organic cause. Patients with delirium may also appear hyperaroused or be prone to illusions. There is a high comorbidity of depression and alcohol abuse among patients with PTSD.
Antidepressants, particularly SSRIs and TCAs, are indicated for treatment of PTSD (see Table 14-3). Both individual and group CBTs are also effective in the treatments and may be used alone or in combination with pharmacological therapy. Antiadrenergic agents such as clonidine may be helpful for symptoms of increased arousal, although one must consider related side effects such as orthostasis. Benzodiazepines can often worsen symptoms of PTSD and should be avoided. Antipsychotic medications are occasionally necessary for the treatment of associated psychotic symptoms (see Table 14-5).
SCHIZOPHRENIA & PSYCHOTIC DISORDERS
ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS
Psychotic symptoms may be due to a long-standing psychotic illness that has persisted into older age or may present for the first time in later life in association with underlying medical conditions, especially dementia. Estimates for schizophrenia in the elderly population range from 0.1–0.5%. The prevalence of other psychotic syndromes such as paranoid ideation is higher, estimated at 4–6% in the elderly population, and is frequently associated with dementia. Patients with Alzheimer's disease have a particularly high incidence of
psychosis; 50% manifest psychotic symptoms within 3 years of diagnosis.
The diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia include ≥ 2 of the following characteristic symptoms present for at least 1 mo: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior, or negative symptoms such as flattened affect. These symptoms must also be associated with social or occupational dysfunction. Patients commonly will not volunteer psychotic symptoms unless specifically asked by their provider after a trusting relationship has been established. If psychosis is suspected, it is important to ask patients and family members specifically about auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions, ideas of reference, and paranoid ideation. Visual hallucinations are associated more strongly with underlying organic cause.
Especially in the elderly, new psychotic symptoms carry a vast and complicated differential. New-onset psychotic symptoms can be attributed to medications, changes in environment, organic causes, including dementia, or a combination of these factors. Because psychosis may be the presenting sign of dementia, any elderly patient with new-onset psychosis should have a thorough cognitive screen. Prominent visual hallucinations are one of the hallmarks of Lewy body dementia. Patients with Alzheimer's disease frequently have fixed delusions regarding people stealing their possessions or marital infidelity. The dementia associated with Parkinson's disease may include negative symptoms of schizophrenia, such as flat affect.
Other central nervous system diseases such as brain tumors, partial seizures, multiple sclerosis, or cerebral systemic lupus erythematosus can also cause psychotic symptoms. Patients with major depression or bipolar disorder may experience psychotic features. Infections, endocrinopathies (thyroid, diabetes, adrenal), and nutritional deficiencies (vitamin B12, thiamine) may lead to psychosis. Finally, elderly patients can be especially sensitive to medications that trigger psychotic symptoms such as steroids or levodopa. Because of the large differential diagnosis, collateral information regarding the patient's baseline mental status, psychiatric history, and onset of symptoms is critical in the evaluation of psychotic symptoms.
Antipsychotic agents such as risperidone, olanzapine, quetiapine, and clozapine are the mainstays of treatment for psychotic symptoms (see Table 14-6). Ziprasidone has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration, but data in the elderly are not yet available. Because of their lower incidence of extrapyramidal side effects, these agents are much better tolerated than the older antipsychotic agents, such as haloperidol and trifluoperazine (Stelazine). However, haldoperidol remains the treatment of choice in hospitalized patients requiring intravenous medications for acute psychosis or agitation, because none of the newer agents is available in intravenous form. Unlike older neuroleptics, which mainly treat positive symptoms (eg, delusions, hallucinations), the newer agents effectively manage both positive and negative psychotic symptoms (eg, flat affect, social withdrawal). The main side effects of newer agents are sedation and dizziness. Patients may experience akathisia and parkinsonism (eg, stiffness and rigidity) and, with longer term use, tardive dyskinesias, although the risk of such side effects is lower than with high-potency traditional antipsychotic drugs. Risperidone has been associated with a slightly increased incidence of strokes in patients with dementia. Unlike other newer agents, ziprasidone does not appear to cause weight gain and is useful in the treatment of obese patients. However, it is associated with QT prolongation and thus should be avoided in patients with underlying conduction disease and QT prolongation at baseline. Clozapine is often the treatment of choice for patients with severe resistant psychosis and those with disabling tardive dyskinesias. Clozapine, however, carries a 1–2% risk of agranulocytosis and, therefore, requires weekly blood monitoring. In addition, both clozapine and olanzapine have been associated with glucose dysregulation and thus should be used with caution in patients with diabetes mellitus. Dosages of antipsychotics used in elderly patients with dementia or acute delirium tend to be lower than those required for management of other psychotic disorders and may be only necessary for short periods of time (see Table 14-6).
To decrease inappropriate use of psychotropic medications and improve the quality of care in long-term care facilities, the Health Care Finance Administration's 1987 Omnibus Reconciliation Act outlined indications and prescribing guidelines for psychoactive medications used in the treatment of psychotic disorders and agitated behaviors associated with organic brain disorders. This act requires documentation of response in terms of specific target symptoms and careful monitoring of side effects. To avoid long-term side effects such as tardive dyskinesia, OBRA also recommends trial dose reductions of neuroleptics unless clinically contraindicated because of severity of symptoms.
Behavioral therapy may be effective for the management of psychosis and after the acute episode has resolved.
Providing a stable living environment is critical to the successful treatment of psychosis. Medical compliance is difficult without close supervision by a family or staff member. Adult day facilities provide structured programs for patients and give critical respite to caregivers, thus allowing patients to remain in the community longer than they would otherwise be able to without nursing home care.
Dada F et al: Generalized anxiety disorder in the elderly. Psychiatr Clin North Am 2001;24:155. [PMID: 11225505]
Howard R et al: Late-onset schizophrenia and very-late-onset schizophrenia-like psychosis: An international consensus. Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:172. [PMID: 10671383]
Lang AJ, Stein MB: Anxiety disorders: How to recognize and treat the medical symptoms of emotional illness. Geriatrics 2001;56:24. [PMID: 11373949]
Targum SD, Abbott JL: Psychoses in the elderly: A spectrum of disorders. J Clin Psychiatry 1999;60(suppl 8):4. [PMID: 10335666]
Weintraub D, Ruskin PE: PTSD in the elderly: A review. Harv Rev Psychiatry 1999;7:144. [PMID: 10483933]
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RELEVANT WORLD WIDE WEB SITES
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality “AHCPR supported guidelines” for Diagnosis and Treatment of Depression in Primary Care: http://www.text.nlm.nih.gov
American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry: http://www.aagpgpa.org
American Medical Association: http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/3457.html
Depression Awareness, Recognition, and Treatment (DART) program of the National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/index.cfm
National Center for PTSD: http://www.ncptsd.org
National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association Depressive Association: http://www.ndmda.org
National Foundation for Depressive Illnesses: http://www.depression.org/
National Mental Health Association (Campaign on Clinical Depression): http://www.nmha.org/ccd