Treatments for late-life bipolar disorder

Am J Geriatr Pharmacother. 2006 Dec;4(4):347-64. doi: 10.1016/j.amjopharm.2006.12.007.


Background: Bipolar affective disorder is not uncommon in the elderly; prevalence rates in the United States range from 0.1% to 0.4%. However, it accounts for 10% to 25% of all geriatric patients with mood disorders and 5% of patients admitted to geropsychiatric inpatient units. These patients often present a tremendous treatment challenge to clinicians. They frequently have differing treatment needs compared with their younger counterparts because of substantial medical comorbidity and age-related variations in response to therapy. Unfortunately, the management of geriatric bipolar disorder has been relatively neglected compared with the younger population. There continues to be a scarcity of published, controlled trials in the elderly, and no treatment algorithms specific to bipolar disorder in the elderly have been devised.

Objective: The goal of this article was to review the current literature on both the pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic management of late-life bipolar disorder.

Methods: English-language articles written on the treatment of bipolar disorder in the elderly were identified. The first step in data collection involved a search for evidence-based clinical practice guidelines in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (up until the third quarter of 2006). Systematic reviews were then located in the following databases: MEDLINE (1966-September 2006), EMBASE (1980-2006 [week 36]), and PsycINFO (1967-September 2006 [week 1]). Additional use was made of these 3 databases in searching for single randomized controlled trials, meta-analyses, cohort studies, case-control studies, case series, and case reports. "Elderly," used synonymously with "geriatric," was defined as individuals aged > or =60 years. However, to take into account ambiguity in the nomenclature, the key words aged, geriatric, elderly, and older were combined with words indicating pharmacologic treatments such as pharmacotherapy; classes of medications (eg, lithium, antidepressants, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines); and names of selected individual medications (eg, lithium, valproic acid, lamotrigine, carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, topiramate, gabapentin, zonisamide, clozapine, risperidone, olanzapine, quetiapine, ziprasidone, aripiprazole). These terms were then combined with the diagnostic terms bipolar disorder, mania, hypomania, depression, or bipolar depression. Finally, the terms ECT and psychotherapy were also queried in combination with indicators for age and diagnosis. A few articles on "older adults," usually defined as individuals aged 50 to 55 years, were also included. They may allow for possible extrapolation of data to the geriatric population. Additionally, several mixed-age studies were included for similar considerations. Case reports and case series were described for their potential heuristic value.

Results: Unfortunately, there is a considerable dearth of literature involving evidence-based clinical practice guidelines and even randomized controlled trials in elderly individuals with bipolar disorder. Available options for the treatment of bipolar disorder (including those for mania, hypomania, depression, or maintenance) in the elderly include lithium, antiepileptics, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and psychotherapy.

Conclusions: The data for the treatment of late-life bipolar disorder are limited, but the available evidence shows efficacy for some commonly used treatments. Lithium, divalproex sodium, carbamazepine, lamotrigine, atypical antipsychotics, and antidepressants have all been found to be beneficial in the treatment of elderly patients with bipolar disorder. Although there are no specific guidelines for the treatment of these patients, monotherapy followed by combination therapy of the various classes of drugs may help with the resolution of symptoms. ECT and psychotherapy may be useful in the treatment of refractory disease. There is a need for more controlled studies in this age group before definitive treatment strategies can be enumerated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age of Onset
  • Aged
  • Anticonvulsants / adverse effects
  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use*
  • Antidepressive Agents / adverse effects
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Antipsychotic Agents / adverse effects
  • Antipsychotic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Benzodiazepines / adverse effects
  • Benzodiazepines / therapeutic use*
  • Bipolar Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Bipolar Disorder / epidemiology
  • Bipolar Disorder / therapy
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy
  • Humans
  • Lithium Compounds / adverse effects
  • Lithium Compounds / therapeutic use*
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychotherapy
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Lithium Compounds
  • Benzodiazepines