New study shows uplift in antidepressants for thousands of elderly widowed carers

Older spouses of people dying from cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and dementia show an increase in the use of antidepressants following the death of their loved one, a study of 13,693 bereaved partners has found.

When looking at the effects of caring for an elderly spouse or partner, the Dimbleby Cancer Care and Marie Curie funded study saw increased levels of antidepressants being prescribed to the surviving carers within one year of bereavement. A similar pattern was seen for sleeping tablets and drugs for anxiety.

The research highlights the negative impact caring can have on people’s health and paints a distressing picture of older people needing antidepressants to manage the impact of caring and the death of their partner.

Lead author, Dr Liz Sampson, from the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Department at University College London, said:

“I fear this is 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. This means they often miss out on the support they need following the death of their partner. For this reason it is not impossible to imagine thousands of bereaved elderly people living with undiagnosed depression.

“Caring for a spouse or partner with a terminal illness is often done willingly out of love for the person they are caring for. However, it can be very stressful. 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.”

Medical director at Marie Curie, Professor Bill Noble, said:

“In this study very few bereaved partners were identified in the records as being carers, yet, no doubt most will have played a vital caring role as we know that one million people in the UK are supporting a family member who has a terminal illness1.

“It’s clear from the increased antidepressant use that caring for someone with a terminal illness can impact heavily on people’s wellbeing. It is, therefore, important not only to recognise the contribution these carers make but also the continued burden they carry in bereavement.”

The median age of the dementia carers in this study was 82, the COPD carers 77 and the cancer carers 75. Data for this work was taken from The Health Improvement Network (THIN), a primary care database to which over 500 general practices contribute data. The results were taken from a cohort of 13,693 bereaved cohabitees of people who died with dementia, cancer (lung and/or colorectal) and COPD.

Robin Pritchard, Director at Dimbleby Cancer Care said:

“The results of this study show just how much of an impact a cancer diagnosis can have, not just on the person themselves, but on those closest to them, often with long lasting implications. It’s important that carers identify themselves as such and seek the support and help that is available to them.”

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