Treatments for later-life depressive conditions: a meta-analytic comparison of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy

Am J Psychiatry. 2006 Sep;163(9):1493-501. doi: 10.1176/ajp.2006.163.9.1493.


Objective: To improve interventions for depressed older adults, data are needed on the comparative effects of pharmacotherapy versus psychotherapy. Given that most older adults with clinically significant depressive symptoms do not have major depression, data on treatments for minor depression and dysthymia are especially needed.

Method: Meta-analysis was used to integrate the results of 89 controlled studies of treatments focused on acute major depression (37 studies) and other depressive disorders (52 studies conducted with mixed diagnostic groups, including patients with major depression, minor depression, and dysthymia). A total of 5,328 older adults received pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy in these studies.

Results: Clinician-rated depression scores improved, on average, by 0.80 standard deviation (SD) units; self-rated depression scores improved by 0.76 SD units. Clinician-rated depression improved by 0.69 SD units in pharmacotherapeutic studies and by 1.09 SD units in psychotherapeutic studies. Self-rated depression improved by 0.62 SD units and 0.83 SD units, respectively. An interesting finding was the stronger improvements in clinician-rated depression among control subjects participating in medication studies, compared to those in psychotherapeutic studies.

Conclusions: Available treatments for depression work, with effect sizes that are moderate to large. Comparisons of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy must be interpreted with caution, in part because medication studies are more likely to use a credible active placebo, which may lead to smaller adjusted effect sizes in medication studies. Given that psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy did not show strong differences in effect sizes, treatment choice should be based on other criteria, such as contraindications, treatment access, or patient preferences.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / psychology
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / therapy
  • Dysthymic Disorder / drug therapy
  • Dysthymic Disorder / therapy
  • Humans
  • Psychotherapy / methods*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / statistics & numerical data
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antidepressive Agents