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OBJECTIVE: To determine the prognosis of elderly medical inpatients with depression. DATA SOURCES: A MEDLINE search for relevant articles published from January 1980 to September 1996 and a search of the PSYCH INFO database for articles published from January 1984 to September 1996. The bibliographies of identified articles were searched for additional references. STUDY SELECTION: Eight reports (involving 265 patients with depression) met the following 5 inclusion criteria: original research, published in English or French, population of general medical inpatients, mean age of depressed patients 60 years and over, and affective state reported as an outcome. The validity of the studies was assessed according to the criteria for prognostic studies described by the Evidence-Based Medicine Working Group. DATA EXTRACTION: Information about the patient population, the proportion of cases detected and treated by attending physicians, the length of follow-up, the affective outcome and the prognostic factors was abstracted from each report. DATA SYNTHESIS: All of the studies had some methodologic limitations. A meta-analysis of outcomes at 3 months or less indicated that 18% of patients were well, 43% were depressed and 22% were dead. At 12 months or more, 19% were well, 29% were depressed and 53% were dead. Factors associated with worse outcomes included more severe depression, more serious physical illness and symptoms of depression before admission. CONCLUSIONS: Elderly medical inpatients who are depressed appear to have a very poor prognosis: the recovery rate among these patients is low and the mortality rate high.