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Elder Depression Is Linked With Brain Changes


PHILADELPHIA — Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered biological changes in the brains of elderly people suffering from minor depression.

Mental health experts said they hoped the findings would encourage older people to seek treatment for minor depression and not dismiss it as a byproduct of old age.

"My colleagues and I hope that family members, caretakers and primary care doctors will recognize the signs of minor depression and encourage seniors to get the help they need," said Dr. Anand Kumar, the study's lead author and director of the Mood and Memory Disorders Program at Penn.

The two-year study examined 18 healthy elderly patients who experienced minor depression for the first time in late life and compared them to 31 non-depressed patients. Patients' median age was 69.

Using an MRI, researchers discovered that the prefrontal lobe--the region of the brain associated with emotional states and behavior--was significantly smaller in elderly patients suffering minor depression than in their nondepressed counterparts.

Kumar, whose study was published in the May 15 issue of the Archives of Neurology, said minor depression is much more common than major depression but gets less attention. Minor depression affects one in five people age 65 and older and is more prevalent than major depression in the elderly.

Although the study didn't analyze treatment options, Kumar said antidepressants coupled with psychological therapy may relieve late-life minor depression.

"Older folks with emotional disorders seek treatment less often than younger folks do," said Dr. Myron Weiner, a geriatric psychiatrist and specialist in Alzheimer's and other dementias. "That's because elders have the attitude that it comes with the territory and bear up on it," said Weiner, who is on staff at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

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