Major depression during later life represents a clinical challenge. Conventional antidepressant pharmacotherapy is relatively less well tolerated in geriatric patients compared with younger patients. Despite the striking impairments associated with this disorder, clinical investigations into the relative risk-benefit ratio of various depression treatment strategies have been limited. In this multicentre, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial with fluoxetine, 671 major depressed (DSM-III-R-compatible) outpatients aged 60 years or older were evaluated. The 21-item Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAMD21) response (p = 0.014) and remission (p = 0.008) criteria favoured fluoxetine over placebo. Analysis of the treatment effect on change in the HAMD21 factors (anxiety/somatization, cognitive disturbance, psychomotor retardation, and sleep disturbance) revealed advantages for fluoxetine within the cognitive disturbance and psychomotor retardation factors. Overall, the rate of discontinuation for an adverse event between fluoxetine (11.6%) and placebo (8.6%) was not statistically significant. Baseline HAMD21 factor scores were not predictive of adverse events leading to premature treatment discontinuation. Fluoxetine, 20 mg/day, is a well-tolerated and effective treatment option in the management of geriatric major depression.