The nature and correlates of change in depressive symptoms with cancer diagnosis: Reaction and adaptation

Frank J. Infurna, Denis Gerstorf, Nilam Ram

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Major life events trigger change processes in mental health. We examined how depressive symptoms change in conjunction with cancer diagnosis during adulthood and old age, and whether sociodemographic variables, cognitive and health resources, and cancer-specific mortality risks moderate eventrelated reaction and adaptation. Specifically, we applied multiphase growth models to prospective longitudinal data from 2,848 participants (age at diagnosis: M = 69, SD = 9.91; 46% women) in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) who reported receiving a cancer diagnosis while enrolled in the study. On average, individuals experienced a significant increase in depressive symptoms within 2 years of cancer diagnosis, still-elevated levels 2 years postdiagnosis, and smaller increases in depressive symptoms postdiagnosis relative to the increases observed prediagnosis. Better memory and lower cancer-specific mortality risks were protective against increases in depressive symptoms within 2 years of diagnosis and were associated with reporting fewer depressive symptoms 2 years postdiagnosis. Findings suggest that diagnosis-related changes in depressive symptoms are typically characterized by a multiphase pattern, but tremendous between-person differences also emerged within each phase. Follow-up analyses comparing a matched group (N = 2,272) who did not experience cancer provided an additional layer of evidence supporting our inferences. Results indicate that, on average, people adapt and adjust to the challenges accompanying a cancer diagnosis, and illustrate the utility of using natural experiments such as major life events as a paradigm for studying developmental change processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)386-401
Number of pages16
JournalPsychology and aging
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Aging
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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