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Computer games more effective than antidepressants for depression in seniors

Only about one-third of seniors who take antidepressants get fully well
Only about one-third of seniors who take antidepressants get fully well
Robin Wulffson, MD

Depression is a common problem among seniors. When they discuss the problem with their physician, they are often given a prescription for an antidepressant. However, according to a new study, they might achieve better results by engaging in a pastime popular with their grandkids: computer gaming. The findings were published online on August 4 in the journal Nature Communications by researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College (New York, New York), Yale Medical School (New Haven, Connecticut), and Medical School of Southeast University (Nanjing, China).

The researchers use the term executive dysfunction, which entails problems with performing tasks. They note that executive dysfunction is common among seniors with depression, and is a predictor of limited overall improvement despite the relief of symptoms with antidepressants. They explain that only about one-third of seniors who take antidepressants get fully well.

The study group comprised 11 seniors, aged 60 to 89 years, with treatment-resistant major depression and 33 matched control patients. The investigators developed one computer game that involved balls moving on a video screen. The subjects had to press a button when the balls changed color. This game helped test attention and accuracy. Another game involved rearranging multiple word lists into categories’ this game tested speed and accuracy. Both games increased in difficulty over time based on the seniors’ performance. The researchers compared the relief of depression among the game players to seniors who received a “gold standard treatment” with escitalopram: 20 mg daily for 2 weeks.

The investigators found that the computer gaming was equally as effective at reducing depressive symptoms as escitalopram (Lexapro); however, it reduced depression in four weeks, compared to 12 weeks for the medication. They concluded that the computer gaming may be equally effective as escitalopram in treating depression. In addition, the computer gamers were found to have greater improvement in executive functions than the controls treated with escitalopram. They note that computer gaming could also benefit seniors with other cognitive disorders.

Take home message:

This study describes the ability of computer gaming to treat depression among seniors. In addition, all medications can have untoward side-effects. Lexapro and other antidepressants carry a risk of suicide and unusual changes in behavior such as mood or behavior changes, anxiety, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, impulsive behavior, irritability, agitation, hostile or aggressive behavior, restlessness, and hyperactivity (mentally or physically).

Computer gaming does not carry the aforementioned risks. Many seniors have little or no experience with computer gaming; thus, if you know of a depressed senior, try to encourage him or her in taking up computer gaming. Any game that requires thinking will help. They come in unlimited varieties and levels of complexity.

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