Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Loneliness and sleep difficulties may increase risk of anxiety and depression in adults with a learning disability

New research has found that loneliness, sleep difficulties, the regular use of mood stabilisers, and aggressive challenging behaviour may play a role in anxiety and depression among older adults with learning disabilities.

The paper, which was published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, analysed data from a study of adults with a learning (or intellectual) disability living in Ireland. 

The researchers randomly selected adults from a national database which held the health information of all adults with a diagnosed learning disability in Ireland. This data included 28,388 individuals aged over 40 years old.

Face-to-face interviews were then organised with 291 patients from the database. Of the sample, 41% (121) were men and 64% were 50-65 years of age. In total, 48% lived in a community group home; 45% were employed; and 75% had at least 1 chronic physical health condition.

The Glasgow Depression Scale for people with a Learning Disability and the Glasgow Anxiety Scale for people with a Learning Disability were used to assess symptoms of depression and anxiety respectively. 

Nearly one fifth of participants met the criteria for anxiety and depression

Overall, nearly 1 in 10 (29 participants) met the criteria for depression and 15% (44 participants) met the criteria for anxiety. Nearly one fifth (53 patients) met the criteria for both anxiety and depression. 

The results from the study found that age, gender, severity of learning disability and residential setting were not significantly associated with anxiety or depression.

However, participants were more likely to meet the criteria for anxiety and/or depression if:

  • They were taking mood stabilisers, anxiolytic medications, hypnotics, sedatives or antidepressants.
  • They had a chronic physical health condition.
  • They had difficulty sleeping, including trouble falling asleep, early waking, coughing or snoring, feeling too cold or too hot and having a bad dream.
  • They felt lonely.
  • They reported aggressive behaviour in the prior two months.

Some factors which contribute to anxiety and depression are modifiable 

The findings of the study reveal that some factors which contribute to anxiety and depression (such as difficulty sleeping and loneliness) are modifiable. As a result, these findings could inform management strategies and prevention policies, as well as funding of services.

The researchers conclude that a longitudinal study follow?up will be necessary in order to develop knowledge on the causality and direction of biopsychosocial factors associated with depression and anxiety.

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