RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Antidepressant use among older adults has risen gradually over the past few decades, from roughly 4 percent in the late 1980s to 11 percent earlier this decade. Yet, only 1 percent of adults over the age of 60 are diagnosed with major depression, leading many psychologists to think that depression in older adults is either overlooked or misdiagnosed. It could be that depression in older adults is "subsyndromal," a type of depression that isn't as severe as major depression but is characterized by similar symptoms: depressed mood, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, fatigue, feelings of guilt, suicidal thoughts, and marked changes in sleep, appetite, and energy levels.
There is no official definition of subsyndromal depression, so this form of depression in older adults can be difficult to diagnose, but a 2006 study from the University of Rochester estimated that as many as 7 million U.S. adults over 65 suffer from it. Yet, an antidote to this mysterious disorder could be sitting in your living room. A study just published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that people who used Nintendo's Wii gaming system saw as much as a 50 percent drop in depression symptoms.
THE DETAILS: The researchers recruited a small sample of 19 adults, average age 78, all exhibiting signs of subsyndromal depression, from senior community centers in San Diego. Each participant was given a Nintendo Wii and its corresponding sports package, which includes tennis, bowling, baseball, golf, and boxing games. They were instructed to play any game of their choice three times a week for 35 minutes at a time, and at three points over the course of the 12-week study, the participants' depression symptoms were measured. People were good about adhering to the program, researchers found, and none of them suffered serious physical harm while playing the video games. Furthermore, 37 percent of the participants saw a reduction in their depressive symptoms of 50 percent or more. The study was small, the authors concede, but they write that it was large enough to demonstrate that exercise-oriented video games "are feasible and acceptable to older adults with subsyndromal depression and may represent a novel route to improving depressive symptoms in seniors."