Prevalence and correlates of alexithymia in older persons with medically (un)explained physical symptoms

Pauline Bos*, Richard C. Oude Voshaar, Denise J.C. Hanssen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Objectives: Much is unknown about the combination of Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS) and alexithymia in later life, but it may culminate in a high disease burden for older patients. In the present study we assess the prevalence of alexithymia in older patients with either MUS or Medically Explained Symptoms (MES) and we explore physical, psychological and social correlates of alexithymia. 

Methods and Design: A case control study was performed. We recruited older persons (>60 years) with MUS (N = 118) or MES (N = 154) from the general public, general practitioner clinics and hospitals. Alexithymia was measured by the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale, correlates were measured by various questionnaires.

Results: Prevalence and severity of alexithymia were higher among older persons with MUS compared to MES. Alexithymia prevalence in the MUS subgroup was 23.7%. We found no association between alexithymia and increasing age. Alexithymia was associated with depressive symptoms, especially in the MUS population.

Conclusions: Alexithymia prevalence was lower than generally found in younger patients with somatoform disorder, but comparable to studies with similar diagnostic methods for MUS. Considering the high prevalence and presumed etiological impact of alexithymia in older patients with MUS, as well as its association with depression, this stresses the need to develop better understanding of the associations between alexithymia, MUS and depression in later life.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun-2022


  • alexithymia
  • case control study
  • medically unexplained symptoms
  • old age
  • physical symptoms
  • somatoform

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