Drugs & Aging

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 184–202 | Cite as

Recent Advances in Geriatric Psychopharmacology

  • Claudio A. Naranjo
  • Nathan Herrmann
  • Nicole Mittmann
  • Karen E. Bremner
Review Article Drug Therapy


Psychopharmacotherapy of the elderly must take into account the effects of age-related changes in the structure and function of the brain and various organs. In general, older people are more sensitive than young people to both the therapeutic and toxic effects of psychotropic medications, necessitating lower doses and longer dosage intervals. This holds true for the treatment of 5 major types of psychiatric illness (depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, psychotic disorders and dementia).

The tricyclic antidepressants, although efficacious, inexpensive, and backed by 30 years of experience, are less well tolerated by the elderly than are newer antidepressants such as the selective serotonin uptake inhibitors. Problems with monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, including orthostatic hypotension and restrictions in diet and other medication use, have been overcome by the advent of reversible selective inhibitors of MAO-A, but the efficacy of these in the elderly has yet to be proven in clinical trials.

Lithium remains the mainstay for the treatment of bipolar disorder. However, careful dosing and monitoring of plasma lithium concentrations are required in the elderly due to changes in pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics which make older patients very sensitive to the toxic effects of this medication.

Similarly, age-related changes in the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamicsof the benzodiazepines, the most frequently prescribed medications for anxiety in the elderly, result in recommendations for lower doses and preferential use of those agents metabolised by conjugation (e.g. oxazepam). Buspirone, a partial serotonin 5-HT1A-agonist which is better tolerated than benzodiazepines in the elderly, may be used as an alternative.

The elderly are extremely sensitive to extrapyramidal adverse effects which the typical antipsychotics (neuroleptics) exhibit to varying extents. The selection of a suitable agent for the treatment of a psychotic disorder should be based upon the adverse effect profile of the drug and the specific symptoms and situation of the patient. The newer atypical antipsychotics, clozapine and risperidone, have yet to be well-studied in the elderly.

Dementia, exemplified by Alzheimer’s disease, is almost exclusively an illness of the elderly. Only one medication, tacrine, has been approved for its treatment, based on extensive basic research and positive results of several clinical trials. Its long term benefits have yet to be determined and it has several adverse effects, including a tendency to increase liver enzymes to the extent that the medication has to be discontinued.

Discovery and development of new medications for other psychiatric disorders in the elderly have been neglected for various research and ethical reasons which will have to be overcome if progress in geriatric psychopharmacology is to continue.


Bipolar Disorder Adis International Limited Clozapine Risperidone Buspirone 
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Copyright information

© Adis International Limited 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Claudio A. Naranjo
    • 1
    • 2
  • Nathan Herrmann
    • 1
    • 2
  • Nicole Mittmann
    • 1
    • 2
  • Karen E. Bremner
    • 1
  1. 1.Sunnybrook Health Science CentreTorontoCanada
  2. 2.University of TorontoTorontoCanada

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