The popular antidepressant Lexapro showed promise at easing anxiety symptoms in older adults, but the effect was "modest" and would need to be studied further, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday.
They said antidepressants like Lexapro, made by Forest Laboratories Inc and known generically as escitalopram, may be useful as a new treatment option for older adults with generalized anxiety disorder, a disabling condition that can also cause muscle tension, insomnia and fatigue.
"We found improvements not only in anxiety and level of worry but also in functioning," Dr. Eric Lenze of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, whose study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said in a statement.
He said many people who took the drug were better able to carry out their daily activities. But for most people, he said, the drug alone is likely not enough.
"Overall the benefits were fairly modest," Lenze said in a telephone interview. "It will help some people a lot. Most people will probably need some sort of combination treatment."
Lenze's team did uncover an unexpected benefit: the drug helped people get their blood pressure under control.
"That suggests there can be some long-term health benefits in treating anxiety in this older age group," Lenze said.
While the study looked only at Lexapro, Lenze thinks the benefits would extend to all antidepressants in the class, which are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs.
Older patients with anxiety typically get no treatment or are given sedatives such as Valium or Xanax. And while these drugs can relieve anxiety, they can also impair thinking ability and can even lead to falls.
In the study, Lenze and colleagues evaluated 177 people aged 60 or older with generalized anxiety disorder who got either Lexapro or a dummy pill for 12 weeks.
They found 69 percent of patients got better, compared with 51 percent of those whose symptoms improved simply by taking a placebo. Those who took the drug showed greater improvement in both anxiety symptoms and in social functioning.
In a more conservative analysis that included people who had dropped out of the study, the drug showed no benefit over the placebo arm. Side effects in the drug arm included fatigue, insomnia and urinary symptoms.
Lenze is now studying the long-term effects of treatment and is also studying the drug in combination with a goal-oriented type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy.
Forest, which faces the loss of patent protection for Lexapro in 2012, supplied drugs for the study. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health.