Research Reveals Ethnic Trends in Depression in Older Americans

Depression affects people of all ages. But until recently, there has been no clinical evidence linking symptomology in later life to ethnicity. Researchers at the University of Michigan, the Oregon Health & Science University and VA Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, collaborated on a study to determine exactly how race influences depressive symptoms in older Americans. Statistically, older adults will continue to experience symptoms of depression that exceed the 85th percentile. In an effort to gauge which segment of the population was at increased risk for symptom prevalence, the researchers analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study of 1995-2006, which included a sample of over 17,000 Americans who were all over age 50. The study contained observations from six different points over 11 years. The data revealed several categories of depression in the sample. Participants with low depressive symptoms represented over 36% of the sample, while those with moderate depressive symptoms had at least two symptoms throughout the study and accounted for nearly 30% of the participants. As depressive symptoms increased, fewer participants were represented, with only 3.6% of the subjects exhibiting persistently high depressive symptoms.

The researchers discovered that those with low depressive symptoms (39.5%) or minimal depressive symptoms (15.5%), were more likely to be White, as opposed to Hispanic or Black. Hispanics represented the majority of the highest symptom groups, with 8% of them falling into the high depressive symptom segment. Additionally, Hispanics also were more likely to have moderate but increasing symptoms or high but decreasing symptoms. Black Americans in the sample fell into the moderate but stable depressive symptom group most often, accounting for 35.5% of that category. The researchers believe these findings could lead to more effective prevention measures in older adults. They said, “Interventions, particularly primary and secondary prevention, can then be targeted at subgroups of older adults or elderly patients in primary care, according to key risk factors of these trajectories, (e.g., racial and ethnic minorities, women, depressive symptoms and chronic diseases at baseline).”

Liang, J., Xu, X., Quiñones, A. R., Bennett, J. M., & Ye, W. (2011, August 29). Multiple Trajectories of Depressive Symptoms in Middle and Late Life: Racial/Ethnic Variations. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0023945

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Jeff


    September 9th, 2011 at 2:18 PM

    This surprises me because I have always thought that these ethnic groups were way more family centric than whites, and that the built in support system for dealing with depression would be stronger. Maybe though there is a taboo among blacks or hispanics that keeps them from wanting to tap into this resource and to keep the feelings hidden, which in turn makes things worse.

  • RF


    September 9th, 2011 at 7:37 PM

    I was just wondering why but then I read your comment Jeff. An excellent point in my opinion. And also another thing that could be the reason is that many of the racial minorities are economically backward and are not able to afford treatment or have no proper community support(?)

  • mike S

    mike S

    September 9th, 2011 at 10:26 PM

    It’s always great news to here that advances have been made in the field of depression, even when these advances are as minimal as determining the ethnicity with the highest risk for depression. Knowing that blacks and hispanics are at a higher risk for depression will allow us to take counter measures that wouldn’t normally be taken. This counter measures will be taken in order to significantly lower the chances of these ethnicities becoming depressed. Jeff, I agree with you I found the results odd as well. But I thought it was odd because most hispanic/back countries seem to be much more laid back as a whole compared with America (mostly Caucasian) which is filled with people who always try to make everything an issue and seem prone to becoming depressed. But this study probably didn’t include multiple studies so my theory wouldn’t really matter.

  • Oliver


    September 10th, 2011 at 11:52 AM

    There is a general lack of understanding about depression and I know that there are mnay factors that play into this lack of education in the area. But one of the biigest things has been cited. I really do feel like for these communities depression is seen as a weakness and that a “real” man for example should be able to get past this. You know, pull himself up by his bootstraps and just get over it. But those of us who have been there or have had family members with this problem know that it is never as easy as that. There has to be some real education and some money spent to change some minds, attitudes, and hearts when it comes to dealing with these serious mental health issues.

  • randy


    September 11th, 2011 at 11:48 PM

    I don’t think the same trends would be visible for the younger people or even for the now-young people a few deacdes down the line.Ethnic differentiation is far lower now than it was when these older folk were younger.

  • Brian Ingram

    Brian Ingram

    September 12th, 2011 at 4:35 PM

    @RF–There is no such thing as a racial minority who is economically backwards. There are countless laws in place that can get you into serious trouble if you discriminate based on race, be it aid or a job and it’s often very easy to prove when it happens.

    Please don’t stereotype races. Every race has a wide spectrum of individuals who can be very different from each other in many respects, including their bank balances.

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