ST. LOUIS — Caroll Marlow, 71, said she has been rescued from clinical depression by researchers at Washington University who want to help people older than 60.
After more than 40 years of living with depression, she said, experiences and feelings that are routine for most other people are new for her.
She goes to lunch to laugh with her sisters; she's closer to her children and friends. She dates her husband.
And she found a job. "I love it; I work a swing shift and I just love it," she said. She's a cashier at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in St. Louis County, Mo. "The people I work with are the best. They love older people. I like being around people. And do I have some stories!"
"It's like a bolt of lightning," said Pat Marlow, 73, of Frontenac, Mo., and her husband of 50 years. "She's a different person."
Dr. Eric Lenze, a geriatric psychiatrist, with Washington University School of Medicine, is conducting two studies. One seeks a drug regimen that addresses depression in people older than 60. The other looks at mindfulness meditation to ease depression and anxiety disorders in people older than 65.
Lenze says the studies originated because when he sought depression and anxiety remedies for his patients, "There were few evidence-based options for treatments of elders with anxiety disorders and clinical depression."
Almost all of the studies for drug and other mental health remedies, "were on young, healthy people; nothing included older adults.
"Our lab is looking at dosages, side effects, and other ways the treatments might affect older people differently," Lenze said.
The late-life depression study is testing two drugs, venlafaxine, a popular generic antidepressant drug with minimal side effects, and Abilify, which is supposed to enhance the effectiveness of antidepressant medicines. Abilify's generic name is aripiprazole
All participants get the venlafaxine for a time. If their conditions don't improve, they will get Abilify or a placebo.
They stay on the regimen for several months.
The foundation of the mindfulness meditation study "has shown promise as a treatment for depression and anxiety disorders based on studies in younger adults," Lenze said.
Mindfulness meditation, calming the mind by concentrating on something in the moment, has shown promise to have beneficial emotional and physical effects, Lenze said.
As part of the anti-stress component of meditation, it reduces the level of cortisol, the "fight or flight" hormone that elevates when someone is under stress, he said.
Cortisol serves a necessary short-term purpose, he said. But it's harmful if it's produced steadily for prolonged periods, Lenze said.
A particularly bad effect for older people is that too much cortisol hampers memory and thinking functions and can increase the risk of dementia, Lenze said.
"Our evidence is that if you can reduce (cortisol) there's a memory improvement, people think better; their minds actually work better and they feel better," he said. "We think this is an instance where cognitive impairment in older adults is treatable."
Caroll Marlow was in the late-life depression study from February to July. In August, Lenze offered her the second study.
"I wanted so hard to become better," she said, explaining why she enlisted in both studies.
"The way Dr. Lenze put it, it was meditation to make you relax and ... bring yourself back from all the gibberish in your mind," she said.
"He gave me these tapes and I'd listen and I was able to lay down and relax."
She met others like herself at the weekly, two-hour sessions.
"We just told each other the problems we shared," she said. "Everyone's problem was a little different. Yet, they were all the same. Depression is depression."
Caroll Marlow was diagnosed with clinical depression in the late 1960s. "I can't think of a cause or something happening," she said. "Maybe it's just a chemical imbalance."
In the early 1970s, she was hospitalized for treatment — including old-style electronic shock treatment.
"If someone wanted to make a horror movie, that would be it," said Pat Marlow, her husband.
Over the years, the depression caused her to miss work and created strained relationships with family and friends.
"I didn't get mean or anything, I just would shut myself off," she said. "After awhile, I thought this is the way it's going to be."
Pat Marlow never considered giving up. "It was difficult at times," he said. "But we come from a time when we believed in the wedding vows.
"Now, it's like we've found each other again."
"The difference is like a burden had been lifted off of me," Caroll Marlow said. "I'm able to laugh again. I feel like I've always wanted to feel."