Role of Physical Symptoms in Diagnosis of Depression in the Elderly

Dr. Marie-Josée Filteau, MSc, MD, FRCPC, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Laval University, Clinical Researcher, Laval University-Robert-Giffard Research Centre, and Director, Clinique Marie Fitzbach, Quebec City, QC.

Patricia Gravel, BA, Department of Psychiatry, Laval University, Quebec City, QC.

Although depression is a highly prevalent psychiatric disorder and the focus of much research and discussion, it remains underdiagnosed and undertreated in the primary care setting. One of the key reasons for the underdiagnosis of depression is the tendency among physicians to focus on the emotional and psychological symptoms of the disorder at the expense of its physical symptoms. Although elderly patients with depression are more likely than their younger counterparts to present with physical rather than psychological symptoms, little emphasis is placed on physical symptoms in diagnostic tools and rating scales. Additionally, the understanding of the role and etiology of physical symptoms in depression remains poor.

Diagnosis can be especially challenging in the elderly population, since both patients and health care professionals often perceive depression to be a normal consequence of age-associated changes, such as physical illness or social or economic difficulties.