Study finds link between arthritis and depression

by Berit Svenson | 10/2/18 2:25am

Arthritis in older adults may be linked to higher incidence of depression in these individuals. A recent study by a team of researchers from Cornell University, Dartmouth and the University of Michigan found a significant association between arthritis and varying degrees of depression in older adults.

“This really shows that mental and physical health conditions are interrelated,” said Courtney Polenick, a contributing researcher to the study and lifespan developmental psychologist at the Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging. “It suggests the importance of screening for and treating arthritis and depression.”

Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected from 2011 to 2014, the research team’s primary objective was to better understand arthritis rates among older adults in the U.S. who struggle with depression, according to Jessica Brooks, lead researcher and former postdoctoral research fellow at the Geisel School of Medicine.

After analyzing the collected data using weighted logistic regression models, the researchers found that a significant correlation existed between moderate depression and arthritis in older adults. The association persisted for both minor and severe depression, according to the study.

Because of the correlation between arthritis and depression found in the study, Polenick added that she believes integrated treatments should be introduced to look at what can be done to improve both conditions simultaneously.

“We should be looking into what may be contributing to depression in this population, not just treating the physical aspects of arthritis,” she said.

According to Alexander Titus, who holds a Ph.D. from Geisel’s Quantitative Biomedical Sciences program and conducted the study’s statistical analysis, this study is a key step toward improving the care given to patients affected by both arthritis and depression. Since the study used the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a free, publicly available resource, Titus noted that the research team was able to execute the study without independent funding.

“These studies can often become the foundation of grant applications that allow for additional research into a topic,” Titus said.

According to Brooks, the inception of the study came about while she was doing geriatric mental health research during her post-doctoral fellowship at Dartmouth. She said she developed and submitted a proposal to the National Institute of Mental Health to better understand pain in older adults with serious mental illnesses.

“Depression and pain have always been areas that I have studied,” Brooks said. “But when I was actually writing up my proposal, I thought, ‘I don’t have the answer to this question,’ so that’s where the idea sparked.”

She said she then reached out to colleagues she had collaborated with on previous projects, such as Titus.

According to Titus, conducting research for this study was a particularly rewarding experience because of the diverse affiliations of each researcher involved.

“This is why I wanted to come to Dartmouth,” he said. “To have the opportunity to work on a team of people with various backgrounds.”

Brooks added that she hopes to conduct future studies on the rates of other chronic pain conditions in aging adults with varying degrees of depressive symptoms.

“Unfortunately, the data especially on prevalence rates is quite scarce for various types of serious mental illness,” Brooks said. “Hopefully more people will start paying attention.”