Background: Confounding of depression with somatic illness and anxiety, a problem in any age group, may be especially troublesome in frail older persons. This paper examined this problem in a factor analytic study of the structure of depressive symptomatology, identifying affective and somatic symptom clusters and relating those clusters to health and functional variables cross-sectionally and prospectively over a 1-year interval.
Methods: The factor structure of a DSM-IV symptom checklist was examined among 1,245 elderly long-term care residents. Regression analyses examined the association of resulting factors with cognition, functional disability, self- and physician-rated health, and pain at baseline and a year later. One-year mortality was also examined.
Results: Factor analysis revealed three unique symptom clusters: depressed mood, somatic symptoms, and psychic anxiety. Depressed mood and somatic symptoms were associated cross-sectionally with all functional health variables, but psychic anxiety was associated only with pain. Longitudinally, depressed mood was the only independent predictor of decline in cognition, functional ability, physician-rated health, and mortality; the last effect, however, did not withstand control for baseline health and functioning. Somatic symptoms at baseline predicted decrement in self-rated health a year later. Effects varied as a function of cognitive status.
Conclusions: These data suggest that concerns about the confounding role of somatic symptoms in the association of depression with physical health are unfounded. Although somatic symptoms of depression and anxiety were associated with health and functional status cross-sectionally, depressed mood was by far the stronger predictor of health declines over time.