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Experts recommend drug-free approach to treating depression symptoms in people living with dementia

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Research led by UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) has confirmed treating symptoms of depression is most effective when a non-pharmacological approach is adopted, in people living with dementia.

Depression is a common psychological symptom associated with dementia and is estimated to occur in between 10 per cent and 62 per cent of people living with dementia.

To date, pharmacological approaches continue to be used to treat depression in dementia, despite the failure of relying on medications being highlighted in large-scale studies.

Our aim was to provide an updated review of non-pharmacological approaches to manage depression in dementia — the evidence, clinical significance, and sustainability of different non-pharmacological approaches for treating depression in dementia.

Lead author and postdoctoral fellow at CHeBA, Dr Claire Burley

The review and meta-analysis, published in Ageing Research Reviews, investigates a range of non-pharmacological approaches for symptoms of depression in dementia. It identified 37 relevant non-pharmacological studies from 27,126 articles published between 2012 and 2020.

Lead author and postdoctoral fellow at CHeBA (formerly at the Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration (DCRC) UNSW), Dr Claire Burley, said that the findings support a positive link between non-pharmacological approaches and reduced symptoms of depression in people living with dementia.

“Our aim was to provide an updated review of non-pharmacological approaches to manage depression in dementia — the evidence, clinical significance, and sustainability of different non-pharmacological approaches for treating depression in dementia.”

Edward Caser, who co-founded private markets firm Wingate, has experienced over-prescription of pharmaceuticals within aged care, while caring for his mother who has Alzheimer’s disease.

We found there is great potential to reduce symptoms of depression in dementia — without the use of medications. This is even more relevant as randomised trials of antidepressant medications have not been shown to alleviate depression in people living with dementia.

Co-director of CHeBA, Professor Henry Brodaty

“I’ve witnessed first-hand the unnecessary push of multiple medications to manage behaviour in my mother.”

“I have seen the benefits of adopting a personalised approach with my mum, and strongly support methods that avoid drugs,” Caser says.

According to UNSW’s Professor Henry Brodaty, co-director of CHeBA, the findings have statistical and clinical significance.

“We found there is great potential to reduce symptoms of depression in dementia — without the use of medications,” Brodaty said.

“This is even more relevant as randomised trials of antidepressant medications have not been shown to alleviate depression in people living with dementia.”

Psychosocial approaches should be first-line consideration for treatment of depression. An even more compelling reason is that antidepressants are associated with side effects while psychosocial interventions are free of these.

Professor Brodaty

The research highlighted that the use of methods such as reminiscence, cognitive stimulation and rehabilitation, music-based approaches and education and training had the potential to reduce symptoms of depression.

“Psychosocial approaches should be first-line consideration for treatment of depression.

“An even more compelling reason is that antidepressants are associated with side effects while psychosocial interventions are free of these.

“Pharmacological approaches should only be considered when psychosocial approaches have been proved to be ineffective or in cases of urgency,” Brodaty said.

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