Depression May Blur Memory of People With Physical Symptoms

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Nov 9 2009 - 9:21am

A new study released just last week suggested that people with depression tend to report more physical symptoms than they actually experience. The study, which involved women only, detailed them completing a questionnaire designed that was designed to assess their levels of neuroticism and depression.

For three weeks psychologist Jerry Suls, a professor and collegiate fellow at the University of Iowa kept daily records of whether the women felt any of 15 common physical symptoms, including aches and pains, gastrointestinal problems and upper-respiratory issues.

At the end of the three-weeks, the women were asked to recollect how often they'd experienced each symptom listed. Suls discovered those who had a higher depression score at the start of the study were tended to overstate the incidences of their symptoms.

"People who felt depressed made the most errors when asked to remember their physical symptoms," said Suls, "they tended to exaggerate their experience."

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It's long been believed that a high level of neuroticism, a general disposition that includes irritability, sadness, anxiety and fear can be associated with exaggerated reporting of physical symptoms. This study suggests that a more likely reason is depression.

"For 30 years, the hypothesis has been that neuroticism is behind inflated reports of symptoms," Suls said. "We're saying no, depression appears to be the big player. We discovered that people high in neuroticism but low in depression are not likely to mis-remember symptoms."

These findings were published online Oct. 15 in Psychosomatic Medicine, are vital, Suls said, because symptoms reported by patients play a major role in doctors' diagnosis and treatment decisions.

"Depressed individuals and their physicians shouldn't discount common symptoms because they can indicate serious problems," he said. "However, since we now know that depressed individuals tend to over-remember the frequency of symptoms, it wouldn't hurt to encourage patients to write down their symptoms as they're happening. That way the patient and doctor have an accurate record of what has been going on, rather than relying on memory."

35 million people suffer from depression severe enough to warrant treatment at some time in their lives, according to the National Comorbidity Study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. In any given one-year period, 13 million to 14 million people, about 6.6 percent of the nation, experience depression and with depression seem to report more physical symptoms than they actually experience.

Written by Tyler Woods Ph.D.
Tucson, Arizona
Exclusive to eMaxHealth

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