Scientists find long-term benefits of therapy for older adults with depression and anxiety

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A recent study has found that people aged 65 and older can experience long-lasting benefits from treatment for depression and anxiety, even when facing new challenges like the death of a spouse.

This is great news, especially considering how common triggers for these mental health issues—such as health problems, bereavement, and transitions to retirement or caregiving roles—affect many older adults.

Unfortunately, depression and anxiety are often under-diagnosed in older people.

Their symptoms are frequently dismissed as just a “natural” part of aging. However, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is the top recommended treatment for depression and anxiety for all age groups, is just as effective for people over 65. Despite this, it is prescribed far less often to older adults compared to younger ones.

The study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, revisited people 10 years after they participated in one of two programs designed to treat late-life depression and anxiety.

These programs were Macquarie University’s Aging Wisely CBT program and a discussion group focused on social support and mental stimulation.

While both programs were initially shown to be effective in the short term, there was no data on their long-term benefits. The results of the study showed that the CBT group had significantly lower rates of anxiety and depression 10 years later compared to the discussion group.

According to Carly Johnco, Associate Professor of Psychology at Macquarie University and lead author of the study, the findings were remarkable. “The people in the CBT group came to us with an average of four anxiety and/or depression disorders. Ten years after treatment, 58% were in remission from all of their disorders compared to 27% of the discussion group,” she said.

Furthermore, 88% of the CBT group were in remission from all depressive disorders, compared to 54% of the discussion group, and 63% of the CBT group were in remission from all anxiety disorders, compared to 35% of the discussion group. When looking at their primary disorder—the one causing them the most distress—almost 70% of the CBT group were in remission, compared to 42% of the discussion group.

Another key finding was the relapse rates. Only one-third of the CBT group experienced symptoms in any of their disorders after completing their program. In contrast, between 50 and 80% of the participants in the discussion group had symptoms return at least once.

So, why does CBT work so well? Aging Wisely teaches participants skills to manage worries and unhelpful thinking, solve problems, face fears, and communicate more effectively. It also teaches them how to monitor their symptoms and use these skills over time. In contrast, the discussion group focused on social support and mental stimulation, but this didn’t seem to help as much in the long term.

Associate Professor Johnco explains that while social support is important, having the skills to manage situations independently is crucial. “In the past 10 years, many participants faced significant new stressors like the loss of a partner or new health problems. However, the CBT group was able to use what they learned to cope without their symptoms returning,” she said.

This study challenges the damaging myth that mental health problems in older people are just a normal part of aging. It’s not normal to become anxious or depressed with age, and these symptoms should not be ignored. There’s a misconception that psychological treatment won’t help older people, but this study shows that it can make a big difference.

“It’s important that we move past ageist stereotypes and stigma to ensure older people receive the help they need. This study shows that not only can we teach older people new tricks, but these new tricks can help them for many years to come,” said Associate Professor Johnco.

If you care about mental health, please read studies about 6 foods you can eat to improve mental health, and B vitamins could help prevent depression and anxiety.

For more information about mental health, please see recent studies about how dairy foods may influence depression risk, and results showing Omega-3 fats may help reduce depression.