Drugs & Aging

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 165–177 | Cite as

Differential Pharmacokinetics of Lithium in Elderly Patients

  • Beth A. Sproule
  • Brian G. Hardy
  • Kenneth I. Shulman
Review Article


The pharmacotherapeutic use of lithium in the elderly as acute and maintenance therapy in bipolar disorder and augmentation therapy for major depression is well documented. Differences in the response to lithium are explained, in part, by the effect of age-related physiological changes, comorbid conditions, and concurrent medications on the pharmacokinetics of lithium in the elderly. The pharmacokinetic profile of lithium has been studied for many years, primarily in younger adult populations. Lithium pharmacokinetics may be influenced by a number of factors including age. It was first noted several years ago that elderly individuals required lower doses of lithium to achieve serum concentrations similar to those observed in younger adults. This is due to the combination of a reduced volume of distribution and reduced renal clearance. The composition of the human body changes with aging producing an increase in body fat, a decrease in fat-free mass and a decrease in total body water. Lithium clearance decreases as the glomerular filtration rate decreases with increasing age.

The effects of other medical conditions in the elderly on the pharmacokinetics of lithium are less well delineated. Reduced lithium clearance is expected in patients with hypertension, congestive heart failure or renal dysfunction. Larger lithium maintenance doses are required in obese compared with non-obese patients.

The most clinically significant pharmacokinetic drug interactions associated with lithium involve drugs which are commonly used in the elderly. Thiazide diuretics, ACE inhibitors, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can increase serum lithium concentrations.

The tolerability of lithium is lower in the elderly. Neurotoxicity clearly occurs in the elderly at concentrations considered ‘therapeutic’ in general adult populations. There are no placebo-controlled randomised trials of lithium in old age and recommendations for clinical use are based on extrapolations from pharmacokinetic studies, anecdotal reports from mixed age populations and clinical experience in old age psychiatry. Serum concentrations of lithium need to be markedly reduced in the elderly population and particularly so in the very old and frail elderly.


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Copyright information

© Adis International Limited 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Beth A. Sproule
    • 1
    • 4
    • 5
  • Brian G. Hardy
    • 2
    • 4
  • Kenneth I. Shulman
    • 3
    • 5
  1. 1.Psychopharmacology Research Program, Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences CentreUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Pharmacy Department, Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences CentreUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Psychiatry Department, Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences CentreUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  4. 4.Faculty of PharmacyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  5. 5.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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