Older adults respond better to psychological therapy than working-age adults: evidence from a large sample of mental health service attendees

J Affect Disord. 2021 Nov 1:294:85-93. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2021.06.084. Epub 2021 Jul 9.


Background: Older adults commonly experience depression and anxiety, yet are under-represented in psychological treatment services. There is uncertainty about the outcomes from psychological therapies for older adults relative to working-age adults. This study explored: pre-treatment differences between older and working-age patients with depression or anxiety disorders; whether outcomes from psychological therapy differ between groups controlling for pre-treatment clinical severity, functioning, and socio-demographics; and whether the impact of a long-term health condition (LTC) on outcome differs by age.

Methods: Data on >100,000 patients treated with psychological therapies in eight Improving Access to Psychological Therapies services were analyzed. We compared pre-treatment characteristics and therapy outcomes for older (≥65 years) and working-age (18-64 years) patients, and investigated associations between age and outcomes.

Results: Older adults had less severe clinical presentations pre-treatment. In adjusted models older adults were more likely to reliably recover (OR=1.33(95%CI=1.24-1.43)), reliably improve (OR=1.34(95%CI =1.24-1.45)), and attrition was less likely (OR=0.48(95%CI =0.43-0.53)). Effects were more pronounced in patients with anxiety disorders compared to depression. Having an LTC was associated with a much lower likelihood of reliable recovery for working-age patients but had only a modest effect for older adults.

Limitations: There are potential selection biases affecting the characteristics of older people attending these services. Residual confounding cannot be ruled out due to limits on data available.

Conclusions: Older adults experienced better outcomes from psychological treatments than working-age adults. Given the deleterious effects if mental health conditions go untreated, increasing access to psychological therapies for older people should be an international priority.

Keywords: Anxiety disorders; Community mental health services; Depressive disorder; Geriatric psychiatry; Psychological therapy; Psychotherapy outcome research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anxiety / therapy
  • Anxiety Disorders / therapy
  • Depression / therapy
  • Humans
  • Mental Health Services*
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychotherapy*
  • Young Adult