International Psychogeriatrics, Vol. 8, No. I , 19%
0 1996 International Psychogeriatric Association
The Geriatric Depression Scale:
A Review of Its Development and Utility
Ignacio Montorio and Maria Izal
ABSTRACT. This article reviews the significance of the Geriatric Depression
Scale (GDS) to practitioners and researchers in clinical gerontology, more than
10 years after the scale was introduced to the scientific community. This report
summarizes findings from the most relevant validation studies in which this self-
report for assessing depression in elderly people has been tested. Included is
discussion of the use of the GDS with specific populations (elderly medical
inpatients, nursing home residents, and dementia populations), with description
of the scale’s psychometric properties and its utility when used with them. This
article also provides data on the use of the GDS from more recent studies,
including additional information on psychometric properties, influence of source
bias, and the international dissemination of the GDS. We conclude that the GDS
is a relevant self-report for the assessment of depression in the elderly, given its
advantage over other self-reports that are not as easily administered to this age
group, its utility in the detection of depression, and its adequate psychometric
properties. However, the GDS does not maintain its validity in demented
populations because it fails to identify depression in persons with mild to
moderate dementia. Finally, some suggestions for future research are made.
Depression in old age is a topic that has produced a great aniount of literature
that has substantially contributed to the improvement of the assessment process.
The ambiguity of the definition of depression in old age, its differentiation from
other disorders (e.g., dementia), and the role that other related factors play in the
diagnosis (e.g., medication intake) have been identified as common problems
that should be investigated. Difficulties regarding assessment procedures are as
important as those previously mentioned. There is a fair amount of literature
about the influence of source bias on self-report. However, the self-report
(meaning source of information: self rather than informant) is more traditional
at measuring depression than other assessment procedures, because the charac-
teristics of depression are largely subjective (e.g., dysphoric mood) (Rehni,
The use of self-report for assessing depression in the elderly shares the
aforenientioned characteristics with the assessment of depression in other
adults. However, specific problems have been identified in the use of self-report
From the Department of Biological and Health Psychology, Autonomous University of Madrid,
Madrid. Spain (I. Montorio, PhD; and M. Izal, PhD).
for assessing depression in old age. For example, one of the most frequent
sources of error when using self-report in the elderly is social desirability
(respondent’s wish to present himself or herself in a favorable way; Klassen et
al., 1975). Some aspects of the content of general depression self-reports could
also raise problems, such as somatic complaints or health or death concerns,
when applied to the elderly.
I. Montorw and M. I d
GDS DEVELOPMENT AND VALIDITY
In the assessment of depression in old age, the Geriatric Depression Scale
(GDS) (Brink et al., 1982; Yesavage et al., 1983) is currently one of the most
used depression self-reports. Because the GDS was created for the elderly, its
items were based on characteristics of depression in the elderly (Coleman et al.,
1981; Jarvik, 1976; Wells, 1979). The GDS was developed and validatedin two
studies (Brink et al., 1982; Yesavage et al., 1983). In the study of Brink and
colleagues (1982), the initial conception of the GDS used the rational criteria of
researchers and clinicians involved in geriatric psychiatry and gerontology.
These experts selected 100 items with yesho answers that had been shown to
be useful in distinguishing elderly depressed subjects from elderly normal
subjects. An empirical selection was then made of 30 items that showed higher
correlations with the total score on the 100-item scale when applied to a sample
of 100 elderly volunteers living in the community. None of the final 30 items
was somatic (although 12 of the 100 original items had been), thus avoiding one
of the problems with self-reports assessing depression in the elderly, namely the
confusion of somatic symptoms with physical disturbances that are common in
In a study by Yesavage and colleagues (1983), the 30-item scale was
subsequently validated against scores from two assessment intruments of
depression. This study included measures of depression from the Zung Self-
Rating Scale for Depression (SDS; Zung, 1965) and the Hamilton Depression
Rating Scale (HAMD; Hamilton, 1967) (a version of the Hamilton rating scale
converted into a self-report), to provide a basis for comparing properties of the
GDS with these measures. This study was carried out with two samples, one of
60 depressed elderly subjects (patients complaining of depression) and the other
of 40 elderly subjects not affected by depression (normal subjects without
histories of mental illness). Those with depression were, in addition, divided
into “severe” and “mild” cases using the Research Diagnostic Criteria (RDC;
Spitzer et al., 1978). Statistical analyses were then conducted to examine the
concurrent validity of the three depression scales used. The correlations be-
tween the classification criteria (“no depression,” “mild depression,” and
“severe depression”) and each of the scales, GDS, SDS, and HAMD, were r =
32, r = .69, and r = 33, respectively, all of them being statistically significant
(all p c .001).
In regard to the sensitivity and specificity of the GDS (range of possible
scores = 0 to 30), among samples of subjects chosen from the same centers as
Review o f rhe GDS
those used in the study of Yesavage and colleagues (1983), a score of 1 1 or more
correctly classified 84% of depressed elderly (sensitivity) and 95% of those not
affected by depression (specificity). A more restrictive cutoff score of 14 gave
an 80% sensitivity rate and a 100% specificity rate. In light of these data,
Yesavage and colleagues (1983) suggested that a score of 0 to 10 should be
considered normal and 11 or more as a possible indicator of depression. Data
from a subsequent study have confirmed the appropriateness of similar cutoffs
for the GDS (Hickie & Snowdon, 1987). In this study, each subject was
interviewed to determine the presence or absence of a major depressive episode
using criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3rd
ed.; DSM-111; American Psychiatric Association, 1980). A score of 14 gave an
88% sensitivity rate and 84% specificity rate, and a score of 15 gave an 88%
sensitivity rate and a 100% specificity rate. However, these results must be
interpreted with caution because the subjects were drawn from different popu-
lations (day centers, nursing homes, psychiatry outpatients, and a general
psychiatric ward). Finally, other interesting datacome from a study by Gallagher,
which revealed that the GDS differentiated depressed and nondepressed elderly
people, even though all the subjects in the sample had some physical illness
(Gallagher, Slife, & Yesavage, 1986, cited in Sheikh & Yesavage, 1986).
TYPES OF POPULATIONS
The validity ofthe GDS has been analyzed mostly with regard to elderly persons
living independently in the community. The diagnostic accuracy of the GDS
when used in other living arrangements must also be considered. First, differ-
ences among the results from various studies of elderly medical inpatients have
been found. Thus, in the first study analyzing the GDS when used with this
population (Rapp et a]., 1988), results indicated moderate diagnostic accuracy.
When a GDS cutoff score of 14 as denoting depression was employed, the
sensitivity rate was 65% and the specificity rate was 93%. In a subsequent study
with elderly medical inpatients, more satisfactory results on the diagnostic
accuracy of the GDS were obtained: Using 14 as the cutoff score, the sensitivity
rate was 92% and the specificity rate was 89% (Koenig et al., 1988).
Second, the psychometric properties of the GDS when it is used with the
elderly in nursing homes are not as satisfactory as with the community elderly.
Although the results for the reliability of the GDS with institutionalized elderly
people are consistent with those found in the original research (alpha coefficient
= .99; test-retest reliability = .94; Lesher, 1986) and the validity of the GDS is
supported by its convergence with the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; rxL =
.78) (Kiernan et al., 1986), the sensitivity and specificity of the scale when it is
used with institutionalized elderly people are not consistent, particularly for
those with intermediate levels of depression (Lesher, 1986; Parmelee et al.,
1989). When I1 was used as a cutoff score, the sensitivity rate was 69% for
elderly people with depressive symptoms or subclinical depression and 100%
for elderly persons with major depression, and the specificity rate was 74%.
I. Montorio and M. Izal
When a cutoff score of 14 was used, the sensitivity rate for those with depressive
features ranged from 55% to 100% for those with major depression, and the
specificity rate was 81% (Lesher, 1986).
Third, the use of the GDS with elderly persons who have dementia has serious
drawbacks. The first is in the administration of the GDS, because only elderly
people with levels of 0 and 1 (representing cognitively intact and mildly
demented individuals, respectively) on the Clinical Dementia Rating (Berg,
1984) are able to complete the GDS (Burke et al., 1989). Moreover, when the
GDS is used with elderly persons who have mild and moderate levels of
cognitive impairment, the diagnostic accuracy of the scale is low (the sensitivity
rate is 25% and the specificity rate is 75%; Kafonek et al., 1989). Finally, the
GDS may not be useful with dementia patients who are unaware of their
cognitive deficit, because those dementia patients who disavow memory loss
also tend to deny depressive symptoms on the GDS (Feher et al., 1992).
In addition to the aforementioned studies, most of which are original studies
validating the use of the GDS among elderly persons with physical or cognitive
impairments, other studies exist that yield interesting data on the GDS, mainly
in terms of its validity and reliability. The following findings, although not
exhaustive, are what we consider the most important results from these studies:
1. A 5-minute positive-theme reminiscence prior to administration of the
GDS does not affect the test-retest reliability of the scale; the GDS thus
does not appear to measure passing moods (Brink et al., 1985).
2. The correlations between the GDS and the BDI are high: Both measures are
sensitive to treatment, so that the BDI and GDS may be assumed to
evaluate the same overall construct of depression (Kiernan et al., 1986;
Scogin, 1987). Likewise, there are data that confirm the convergent
validity between the GDS and the Depression Adjective Checklists (DACL)
(Izal & Montorio, 1993; Lubin, 1967) since a high correlation score
between them has been found (rXy = .86, p < .OOl).
3. Variations in reference group instructions that may be given for completion
of the GDS do not significantly alter results (Dunn & Sacco, 1988).
4. A factorial analysis of the GDS generated five factors constituting the
scale, which explain 42% of the total variance (Sheikh et al., 1991). The
first factor, sad mood, reflects persistent thoughts of sadness; the second
factor, lack of energy, includes cognitive complaints that are translated
into difficulties in concentration and a lack of initiative; the third, positive
mood, is related to positive affect and a positive worldview; the fourth,
agitation, reflects different aspects of anxiety; and the fifth, social with-
drawal, is associated with passivity and the avoidance of social situations.
This factor structure provides clinicians with measures that are more
descriptive than a simple total score. Thus, it may be a useful way of
interpreting GDS scores because it characterizes the patient’s subjective
experience of depression (Sheikh et al., 1991).
Review o f the GDS
5. The correlation between the GDS and the Depression Symptoms Checklist
(DSC, a self-report that incorporates the symptoms of depression from the
DSM-111; r = .82) was statistically significant (p < -01) and greater than
that between the GDS and Zung’s SDS (r = .59), or than that between the
DSC and the SDS (r = .57) (Dunn & Sacco, 1988).
6. The GDS improves on Zung’s SDS in that it provides a higher rate of
completion of the scale ( p < 3, so that the mean percentage of GDS items
answered is 88%, whereas the mean percentage of SDS items answered is
79% (Dunn & Sacco, 1988).
7. Research with elderly populations often includes control or comparison
groups consisting of people under 65, making it desirable to test the
reliability of the GDS for adults under 65. A recent study on internal
consistency (Cronbach’s alpha coefficient) of the GDS with groups aged
30 to 39,40 to 49,50 to 59, and 60 to 69, sampled both in the community
and in the university, showed high values (over .80) except for the
university group aged 30 to 39 (Rule et al., 1989).
8. No relation has been found between the tendency to respond to items on
the basis of social desirability, as measured by the Marlowe-Crowne
Social Desirability Scale (M-CSDS), and the score attained with the GDS
9. The GDS has so far been translated and adapted into 12 languages,
including Japanese (Niino et al., 1991), Portuguese (Zilenovski, 1991),
Italian (Ferrario et al., 1990), and Spanish (GonzAlez Felipe, 1988;
Gonzdlez Felipe & Szurek Soler, 1990; Izal & Montorio, 1993; Perlado,
The use of self-reports for assessing depression in the elderly, as in other age
groups, is widespread. However, it poses some problems that should be taken
into account (GaIlagher at al., 1980; Kane & Kane, 1981; Klassen et al., 1975;
Lawton et al., 1980; Montorio, 1990; Zarit et al., 1985). To resolve these
problems, self-reports for the elderly should be modified or specially designed
with the following formal characteristics: They should be short, easily under-
stood, and appropriate in terms of the size of letters in the items and in terms of
the elderly person’s level of education; they should include relevant age-related
items; and they should provide normative data on the elderly population
(McNair, 1979). Furthermore, the main sources of error found in relation to the
use of self-reports among the elderly are relevance, social desirability, inhibi-
tion of response, anxiety, and understanding (Montorio, 1990, 1994).
Comrnuni ty-Dwelling Elderly
If clinicians keep in mind the above parameters, along with the classical
indicators of reliability and validity, the GDS is a suitable self-report for the
detection of depression among the elderly living in the community. In this
population, the GDS shows good capacity for discriminating between depressed
and nondepressed elderly people, even in samples including elderly persons
with various physical complaints. The GDS’s relevance is further seen in its
capacity for measuring the same overall construct of depression as the most
universal and widely studied scale for the assessment of depression in adults, the
BDI (Beck et al., 1961). Moreover, as already pointed out, there is no tendency
to respond to items on the basis of judgments of desirability of item content, so
that, in short, the GDS is not influenced by the respondent’s social desirability
(the tendency to present himself or herself in a favorable way). Also, the lack of
inclusion of elements such as sexual orientation, the simplicity of the response
procedure, and the GDS’s brief average length enhanceunderstanding, diminish
the anxiety generated by the administration of a psychological test, and produce
a high completion rate (Pfeiffer, 1987; Zarit et al., 1985).
1. Monforio and M. Izal
Persons With Dementia
However, although the GDS shows adequate diagnostic accuracy in elderly
persons living in the community, it does not show the same accuracy for elderly
persons in institutions. Therefore, the GDS should be used cautiously as a
screening instrument in a population in which dementia is prevalent or in
persons known to have dementia, because the GDS is not sensitive in detecting
depression in demented subjects. Use of the GDS in dementia patients has been
questioned because these patients, due to memory impairment, may not accu-
rately recall their affective status for the past week as requested by the GDS
instructions (Burke et al., 1989). This inaccuracy of recall confirms what had
previously been stated, based on clinical experience, about the lack of validity
ofthe GDS in dementia patients (Brink, 1984). The GDS has been found to have
moderate to high diagnostic accuracy in differentiating depressed elderly
medical inpatients from normal subjects (Koenig et al., 1988; Rapp et al., 1988).
On the other hand, the GDS has generated some controversy over not
including items of a somatic nature. Somatic items could increase the risk of
misdiagnosis of depression among the elderly, according to findings by Zung
(1967). Examination of SDS items showed that somatic items contributed
greatly to the total SDS score in the elderly, so it was concluded that somatic
items could have a different significance for the elderly compared with other
adults (Blumenthal, 1975; Gallagher et al., 1978). Some common physical
illnesses in old age (such as neurologic, endocrine, or arthritic diseases) could
have the same somatic symptoms as depression (for instance, endocrine disor-
ders cause apathy, reduction of activity, and loss of energy). Furthermore,
medication side effects could be confused with symptoms of depression,
especially when the patient is prescribed neuroleptics, tranquilizers, or drugs for
hypertension, Parkinson’s disease, or cancer (Salzman & Shader, 1978). In
general terms, the more confusing symptoms are insomnia, weight loss, and
absence of energy; in addition, the confusion between physical illness and
depression is greater when physical illness is more serious (Dessonville et al.,
Review o f the GDS
1982). The GDS does not include items considered to measure somatic com-
plaints of depression, therefore preventing misdiagnoses of depression due to
confusion between somatic symptoms caused by depression and those produced
by illness or medication intake. Nevertheless, further research is needed to
determine whether some somatic complaints could be used to discriminate
between depression and physical problems. The inclusion of such items in
self-reports for depression like the GDS would increase the diagnostic accuracy
of the reports.
Directions for Research
Several directions for future research on the GDS can be suggested. First,
additional research on the GDS factor structure that may validate the underlying
structure initially proposed for the scale is necessary (Sheikh et al., 1991).
Second, further testing of the GDS’s sensitivity to treatments for depression in
several settings (community, nursing homes, psychiatric wards) is needed.
Third, because self-reports have shown some shortcomings in detecting depres-
sion among the elderly with dementia, the GDS should be administered and
interpreted jointly with other assessment instruments, as recently recommended
(Alexopoulos et al., 1988). Finally, although the GDS has been translated into
several languages, no adequate validity studies have been carried out on all of
these translations. Such research is needed not only to confirm the psychometric
properties of the GDS when used in other languages, but also to initiate
cross-cultural studies of the GDS.
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Offprinrs. Requests for offprints should be directed to Ignacio Montorio, PhD,
Department of Biological and Health Psychology, Autonomous University of
Madrid, Madrid 28049, Spain
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