Teaching the elderly how to fight off the blues by Ageing Wisely

Grosome older adults in a group therapy situation
Photographer: Myles Pritchard

A study by Macquarie University researchers has found that being involved in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) group program, aptly named Ageing Wisely, can help elderly people fight off depression and anxiety.

Lead researcher, Dr Viviana Wuthrich, from the Department of Psychology and the Centre for Emotional Health within Macquarie University’s Australian Hearing Hub, says that the research shows that this sort of therapy program could vastly improve the mental health of elderly persons suffering from anxiety and mood disorders.

“We found that patients suffering from anxiety and depression who attended the Ageing Wisely sessions showed faster improvements for both anxiety and low mood symptoms, meaning that older adults benefit from being taught skills to change anxious and depressed thinking and change their behaviour,” explained Dr Viviana Wuthrich.

The study included 133 community-dwelling participants, aged 60 or above who had both anxiety and depression, with participants randomly allocated to two groups: the Ageing Wisely group or a discussion group. Each participant first had their mood and anxiety symptoms measured before attending their allocated group sessions for 11-weeks, then had their symptoms measured immediately after all the sessions were completed, and then once again six months later.

“While participants in both groups showed significant improvements in diagnostic severity, self-reported anxiety, depressive symptoms and quality of life over time, 54 per cent of the Ageing Wisely CBT group, as opposed to only 24 per cent of the discussion group, showed significant recovery from their primary mood disorder after 11 sessions,” Dr Wuthrich explained.

“Furthermore, in terms of recovery from all mood disorders, 38 per cent of the Ageing Wisely group, as opposed to only 12 per cent of the discussion group, had recovered from all their identified anxiety and mood disorders after the 11 sessions concluded.”

After six months, the mood of the participants in the Ageing Wisely sessions were largely maintained, while those in the discussion sessions had improved slightly, indicating that both group sessions also helped the participants in the long term as well. These findings are the first in the world to show that co-existing anxiety and depression can be treated more effectively with CBT than an alternative therapy in older adults. This is particularly important as older adults tend not to be offered CBT.

Dr Wuthrich is now teaching the Ageing Wisely program to other psychologists looking to improve the mental health of their elderly patients, with the next workshop set to occur on April 8 during Seniors Week. Learn more about the Ageing Wisely Workshop.

This research is particularly important given recent findings that depression and anxiety are prominent risk factors for the development of dementia.

“Now that we have developed an effective program for treating anxiety and depression in older adults, we have extended this program to also target other risk factors associated with the development of dementia such as physical inactivity, low mental and social stimulation, poor diet, smoking and alcohol use, Dr Wuthrich said.

This new extended program is called the Happy Healthy Ageing Program and Dr Wuthrich is currently seeking participants with anxiety such as worry or low mood, to participate.

“This is an exciting venture, that if proves successful, will result in an effective preventative program to reduce risk for dementia in older adults at heightened risk”, she says.

For more information about the Happy Healthy Ageing program page here.

Wuthrich, Viviana M; Rapee, Ronald M; Kangas, Maria; Perini, Sarah. Randomized controlled trial of group cognitive behavioral therapy compared to a discussion group for co-morbid anxiety and depression in older adults Psychological Medicine. March 2016.