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Member Research and Reports

Texas A&M Researchers Examine Psychological Distress Effects on Preventive Care

For adults over 65, staying healthy means following recommendations on several preventive care services, ranging from blood pressure and cholesterol checks and cancer screenings to a yearly flu shot. Research has shown that psychological distress such as depression and anxiety can hinder preventive care, with distressed patients being less likely to receive care. However, these studies and the data they use are several years old, and with recent advances in health care policy and a growing number of baby boomers joining the nearly 42-million strong older adult population, more updated information is needed.

[Photo: Dr. Szu-Hsuan Lin]

Texas A&M School of Public Health researchers Dr. Szu-Hsuan Lin, Dr. Bita Kash, and Dr. Darcy McMaughan, along with colleagues from Texas State University and the U.S. Census Bureau, studied more recent health data to address this need. In their study, published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, the researchers analyzed a dataset from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey of 2011, which collected data on health care services use, cost of services and various demographic characteristics of a nationally representative sample of Americans. By selecting adults over 65 and using an established health care utilization model, Dr. Lin and colleagues were able to statistically analyze the data to see how psychological distress and other factors affect preventive care use.

The items of interest for this study were the use of five preventive care services within recommended time periods. These services were screening for breast and colorectal cancers, blood pressure and cholesterol checks and influenza vaccinations. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends the two cancer screenings and flu vaccine for older adults and the blood pressure and cholesterol tests are frequently performed because of their high prevalence in the older adult population and the health risks associated with them.

To gain a clearer picture of how psychological distress affects use of these services, the researchers excluded data on cancer screenings for subjects with a history of cancer and data on blood pressure and cholesterol tests for adults with a history of elevated cholesterol or high blood pressure. However, subjects excluded from any of the categories were still included in the remaining groups.

To understand how use of these services can be affected, Dr. Lin and colleagues used Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data on mental health to measure levels of psychological distress, such as feelings of depression and anxiety. They also included data on other factors such as age, gender, race and ethnicity, marital status and education. Their analyses found no statistically significant difference in levels of psychological distress between men and women; however, older subjects and those who were racial or ethnic minorities, unmarried or had lower education attainment were more represented among the psychologically distressed. As for the use of preventive health services, the study found no significant differences between distressed and non-distressed groups for colorectal cancer screening, vaccination and blood pressure and cholesterol checks; however, they did find that patients with psychological distress were less likely to receive the recommended mammograms or breast cancer screening.

These findings differ from the existing research, with previous studies finding that people with psychological distress less likely to undergo colorectal cancer screenings or get a yearly flu shot. The authors state this might be due to older adults now being more likely to have health insurance and a usual source of medical care, which other studies have found to be associated with proper preventive care. Additionally, health care systems have worked to improve quality of care and emphasize preventive care practices in recent years. Whether this can be attributed to change stemming from the Affordable Care Act remains to be seen though.

However, disparities in breast cancer screening rates between distressed and non-distressed patients remained.

“Improved treatment of psychological distress could improve the rates at which distressed patients receive recommended breast cancer screenings,” Dr. Lin said.  “Other improvements that should be considered are higher levels of collaboration among primary care providers and specialists, increased use of electronic health information technology, especially automated reminder systems, and effective and culturally appropriate outreach and health promotion efforts.”

Additional research will help further clarify the role psychological distress plays in health care in older adults. Studies that examine differences between simple procedures like flu vaccination and more complex and multi-step services like cancer screenings will help shed light on this subject as will research that considers alcohol use, family cancer history and other factors not included in this study. In addition, as the health care landscape continues to change, it will be crucial to collect updated data and look into the long-term effects that the Affordable Care Act and other reforms have on preventive care use.

“As the population of older adults continues to grow, the importance of preventive care services will take center stage,” Dr. Lin said. “By better understanding factors like psychological distress that affect preventive care use, the health care community can find ways to improve care and help older adults lead healthy lives.”