Suicide in the Elderly: A Story in Statistics (in time for World Suicide Prevention Day)

Posted on September 7, 2012 by

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In time for World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, 2012, let’s do some myth-busting.

Although they don’t seem like likely candidates, and although the myth persists that suicide is most common among the young, the elderly have the highest suicide rates of any age group.

Even though in 2006 the elderly (we’re starting with 65+ here) made up  12.5% of the population, they accounted for almost 15.9% of all suicides.

The rates begin to increase in a group rather endearingly referred to as the ‘young-old,’ ages 65-85, and continues to increase among the (what else?) ‘old-old,’ at 85+

White men over 85 are the greatest risk of  all age-gender-race groups. In 2006 their suicide rate was 2.5 times the rate for men of all ages, and was six times that of the general population.

Take a look at the following infographic to help you get your head around these numbers–and let’s come back to why the statistics might be so startling.

 

 

Fairly alarming, no?

And in terms of those statistics under epidemiology? 15 suicides a day adds up to 5,475 a year. But the numbers were even higher in 2010, with a total of six to ten thousand committing suicide yearly (still mostly with firearms).

And about the completed vs. attempted suicides, the ratio that’s one in 4 for the elderly? In the U.S. it’s 1:25 in the general population (MCIntosh, 1997).

Here’s a (rather dated, but still, unfortunately, accurate) graph of suicide rates per age from all countries reporting to the World Health Organization.

It doesn’t take a course in analyzing trends to realize it’s bad news.

Suicide Rates Per Age and Gender, WHO 1990

 

So the question becomes. . .why? WHY are suicide rates so high–and so consistently high, for so many years–among the elderly as compared to the general population?

Perhaps the most significant cause of suicide in the elderly is undiagnosed and untreated depression, but there are a number of other risk factors, as well:

  • Recent death of a loved one
  • Physical illness or disability
  • Major life changes (e.g. retirement, divorce–Suicide rates among the elderly are highest for those who are divorced or widowed.)
  • Loss of independence
  • Isolation

A short but strong piece in the New York Times entitled “Preventing suicide among the elderly” runs through the major ways that others can act to prevent suicide in the elderly, including pushing for more aggressive treatment for depression, be attentive to heavy drinking, to signs of isolation, to a sense of loss of purpose among the older person, to their response to illness and crippling pain.

Other articles with suggestions for prevention:

It pays to take a look, and to spend some times thinking about suicide prevention for the elderly.

For not one of us wants our grandparents, parents, spouses or friends to become another statistics, a point on a graph, a percentage in orange on an infographic.