Background. The importance of stressful life events and long-term difficulties in the onset of episodes of unipolar depression is well established for young and middle-aged persons, but less so for older people.
Method. A prospective case–control study was nested in a large community survey of older people. We recruited 83 onset cases during a 2-year period starting 2½ years after the survey, via screening (N = 59) and GP monitoring (N = 24), and 83 controls, a random sample from the same survey population. We assessed depression with the PSE-10 and life stress exposure with the LEDS.
Results. Risk of onset was increased 22-fold by severe events and three-fold by ongoing difficulties of at least moderate severity. Severe events accounted for 21% of all episodes but ongoing difficulties for 45%. The association of onset with life stress, often health-related such as death, major disability and hospitalization of subject or someone close, was most pronounced in the cases identified by screening. While a clear risk threshold for events was found between threat 2 and 3 (on a scale of 1–4), the risk associated with difficulties increased more gradually with severity of difficulty. Compared with controls, severe events involved a larger risk for cases without a prior history of depression (OR = 39·48) than for cases with (OR = 8·86). The opposite was found for mild events (OR = 2·94 in recurrent episodes; OR = 1·09 in first episodes). The impact of ongoing difficulties was independent of severity of episode and history of depression.
Conclusion. Although the nature of life stress in later life, in particular health-related disability and loss of (close) social contacts, is rather different from that in younger persons, it is a potent risk factor for onset of a depressive episode in old age. Severe events show the largest relative risk, but ongoing difficulties account for most episodes. The association of severe events with onset tends to be stronger in first than in recurrent episodes. Mild events can trigger a recurrent episode but not a first one.