Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

A comparison of neurocognitive impairment in younger and older adults with major depression

A. J. Thomasa1 c1, P. Gallaghera2, L. J. Robinsona2, R. J. Portera3, A. H. Younga2, I. N. Ferriera2 and J. T. O'Briena1

a1 Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University, UK

a2 School of Neurology, Neurobiology and Psychiatry, Newcastle University, UK

a3 Department of Psychological Medicine, Christchurch School of Medicine, New Zealand


Background Neurocognitive impairment is a well-recognized feature of depression that has been reported in younger and older adults. Similar deficits occur with ageing and it is unclear whether the greater deficits in late-life depression are an ageing-related phenomenon or due to a difference in the nature of late-life depression itself. We hypothesized that ageing alone would not fully explain the increased neurocognitive impairment in late-life depression but that differences in the illness explain the greater decrements in memory and executive function.

Method Comparison of the neuropsychological performance of younger (<60 years) and older (≥60 years) adults with major depressive disorder (MDD) and healthy comparison subjects. Scores for each depression group were normalized against their respective age-matched control group and the primary comparisons were on four neurocognitive domains: (i) attention and executive function; (ii) verbal learning and memory; (iii) visuospatial learning and memory; and (iv) motor speed.

Results We recruited 75 subjects with MDD [<60 years (n=44), ≥60 years (n=31)] and 82 psychiatrically healthy comparison subjects [<60 years (n=42), ≥60 years (n=40)]. The late-life depression group had greater impairment in verbal learning and memory and motor speed but not in executive function. The two depressed groups did not differ in depression severity, global cognitive function, intelligence or education.

Conclusions Late-life depression is associated with more severe impairment in verbal learning and memory and motor speed than depression in earlier adult life and this is not due to ageing alone.

(Received January 22 2008)

(Revised June 11 2008)

(Accepted June 11 2008)

(Online publication July 30 2008)


c1 Address for correspondence: Dr A. J. Thomas, Wolfson Research Centre, Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle General Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne NE4 6BE, UK. (Email: