Older people are increasingly using antidepressants after the death of a partner, according to UK researchers.
A study, which focused on 13,693 people, found increased levels of antidepressants being prescribed within one year of the death of their partner.
“It is not impossible to imagine thousands of bereaved elderly people living with undiagnosed depression”
A similar pattern was seen for sleeping tablets and drugs for anxiety among the bereaved – whose partners had either died from cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or dementia.
During the year before bereavement, 792 patients started antidepressants, 510 for hypnotics and 381 for anxiolytics.
In the year after bereavement, 1,272 patients were given a new prescription for antidepressants, 2,450 for hypnotics and 780 for anxiolytics.
In addition, the proportion of partners with six or more consultations increased the year after bereavement.
Among those whose partners died from cancer the proportion increased from 16% to 18.8%, for COPD it went up from 17.8% to 20.4% and for dementia 15.5% to 17.5%.
The study, published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, was funded by charities Dimbleby Cancer Care and Marie Curie.
“Caring for someone with a terminal illness can impact heavily on people’s wellbeing”
They said the research “paints a distressing picture” of older people needing antidepressants to manage the impact of caring and the death of their partner.
Lead study author Dr Liz Sampson, from the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Department at University College London, said she feared the study findings were “just the tip of the iceberg”.
“We found that many partners of people with terminal illnesses don’t identify as a carer but rather a husband or wife,” she said. “This means they often miss out on the support they need following the death of their partner.
Dr Sampson said: “For this reason, it is not impossible to imagine thousands of bereaved elderly people living with undiagnosed depression.”
“Given that this population of people are often older and isolated in the community, it is sad to observe the increased levels of antidepressants being prescribed to manage their distress,” she said.
Bereavement sparks rise in elderly antidepressant scripts
Only 6.9% of bereaved partners in the study identified themselves as carers.
Marie Curie medical director Professor Bill Noble added: “Very few bereaved partners were identified in the records as being carers, yet, no doubt most will have played a vital caring role.
“It’s clear from the increased antidepressant use that caring for someone with a terminal illness can impact heavily on people’s wellbeing,” he said.
“It is, therefore, important not only to recognise the contribution these carers make but also the continued burden they carry in bereavement,” said Mr Noble.
The median age of the dementia carers in the study was 82, the COPD carers 77 and the cancer carers 75.