Psychological Medicine

Research Article

Consequences of major and minor depression in later life: a study of disability, well-being and service utilization

A. T. F. BEEKMAN a1 , D. J. H. DEEG a1 , A. W. BRAAM a1 , J. H. SMIT a1 and W. VAN TILBURG a1
a1 Departments of Psychiatry and Sociology and Social Gerontology, Free University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Background. The consequences of major depression for disability, impaired well-being and service utilization have been studied primarily in younger adults. In all age groups the consequences of minor depression are virtually unknown. In later life, the increased co-morbidity with physical illness may modify the consequences of depression, warranting special study of the elderly. With rising numbers of elderly people, excess service utilization by depressed elderly represents an increasingly important issue.

Methods. Based on a large, random community-based sample of older inhabitants of the Netherlands (55–85 years), the associations of major and minor depression with various indicators of disability, well-being and service utilization were assessed, controlling for potential confounding factors. Depression was diagnosed using a two-stage screening design. Diagnosis took place in all subjects with high depressive symptom levels and a random sample of those with low depressive symptom levels. The study sample consists of all participants to diagnostic interviews (N=646).

Results. As in younger adults, associations of both major and minor depression with disability and well-being remained significant after controlling for chronic disease and functional limitations. Adequate treatment is often not administered, even in subjects with major depression. As the vast majority of those depressed were recently seen by their general practitioners, treatment could have been provided in most cases. Bivariate analyses show that major and minor depression are associated with an excess use of non-mental health services, underscoring the importance of recognition. In multivariate analyses the evidence of excess service utilization was less compelling.

Conclusions. Both major and minor depression are consequential for well-being and disability, supporting efforts to improve the recognition and treatment in primary care. However, controlled trials are necessary to assess the impact this may have on service utilization.


Address for correspondence: Dr A. T. F. Beekman, Department of Psychiatry, Free University Amsterdam, Valerius Clinic, Valeriusplein 9, 1075BG Amsterdam, The Netherlands.