CASE Depressed, avoidant
Mr. R, age 95, has a history of recurrent major depressive disorder. He presents to the emergency department with depressive symptoms that began 6 weeks ago. His symptoms include depressed mood, hopelessness, anhedonia, anxiety, and insomnia. Co-occurring anorexia nervosa has resulted in a 20-lb weight loss. He denies suicidal ideation.
A mental status examination reveals profound psychomotor agitation, dysphoric mood, tearfulness, and mood-congruent delusions. Mr. R’s Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) score is 14/30; his Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D) score is 21, indicating severe depression (19 to 22). However, the examiner feels that these scores may not reflect an accurate assessment because Mr. R gave flippant responses and did not cooperate during the interview. Physical examination is unremarkable. Previous medication trials included buspirone, escitalopram, and risperidone; none of these medications successfully alleviated his depressive symptoms.
On admission, Mr. R is given oral mirtazapine, 15 mg/d, and quetiapine, 25 mg/d, to target depressive mood, insomnia, and weight loss. Urgent intervention is indicated because his depressive symptoms are profoundly causing failure to thrive and are compromising his physical health. Mr. R’s deterioration concerns the physician team. Because of a history of failed pharmacotherapy trials, the team reassesses Mr. R’s treatment options.
The authors’ observations
The physician team recommends that Mr. R undergo ECT to obtain rapid relief from his depressive symptoms. After discussion of the potential risks and benefits, Mr. R agrees to this treatment. Quetiapine is discontinued prior to initiating ECT to avoid unnecessary medications; mirtazapine is continued.
Mr. R’s lack of response to previous antidepressants and significant deterioration were concerning. The physicians wanted to avoid higher-dose medications because of the risk of falls or somnolence. Their clinical experience and the literature supporting ECT for patients of Mr. R’s age lead them to select ECT as the most appropriate therapeutic option.
ECT has no absolute contraindications.1 The rate of ECT use in the United States has fluctuated over time because of factors unrelated to the efficacy and availability of ECT or alternative treatments.2 This form of intervention is also somewhat stigmatized.
Some psychiatrists are reluctant to prescribe ECT for geriatric patients because of concerns of potential neurocognitive or medical complications and risks during anesthesia. However, in the United States, older patients with depression are more likely to be treated with ECT than their younger counterparts.3 ECT usually induces greater immediate efficacy than antidepressants.4