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Original Research

Probing the Safety of Medications in the Frail Elderly: Evidence From a Randomized Clinical Trial of Sertraline and Venlafaxine in Depressed Nursing Home Residents

David W. Oslin, MD; Thomas R. Ten Have, PhD; Joel E. Streim, MD; Catherine J. Datto, MD; Daniel Weintraub, MD; Suzanne DiFilippo, RN; and Ira R. Katz,MD, PhD

Published: August 15, 2003

Article Abstract

Background: In nursing home residents and other frail elderly patients, old age and potential drug-drug and drug-disease interactions may affect the relative safety and efficacy of medications. The purpose of this study was to examine the efficacy and tolerability of venlafaxine and sertraline for the treatment of depression among nursing home residents.

Method: The study was a 10-week randomized, double-blind, controlled trial of venlafaxine (doses up to 150 mg/day) versus sertraline (doses up to 100 mg/day) among 52 elderly nursing home residents with a DSM-IV depressive disorder and, at most, moderate dementia. The primary measure of outcome was the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D). Adverse events were monitored and recorded systematically during the trial.

Results: Twelve subjects were discontinued due to serious adverse events (SAE), 5 were discontinued due to other significant side effects, and 2 withdrew consent. Tolerability estimated by the time to termination was lower for venlafaxine than sertraline for serious adverse events (log rank statistic = 5.28, p = .022), for serious adverse events or side effects (log rank statistic = 8.08, p = .005), or for serious adverse events, side effects, or withdrawal of consent (log rank statistic = 10.04, p = .002). Mean (SD) HAM-D scores at baseline were 20.2 (3.4) for sertraline and 20.3 (3.7) for venlafaxine; intent-to-treat endpoint HAM-D scores were 12.2 (5.1) and 15.7 (6.2) (F = 3.45; p = .069). There were no differences in categorical responses for the intent-to-treat sample or completers.

Conclusion: In this frail elderly population, venlafaxine was less well tolerated and, possibly, less safe than sertraline without evidence for an increase in efficacy. This unexpected finding demonstrates the need for systematic research on the safety of drugs in the frail elderly.

Volume: 64

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