Older adults may be at a higher risk of suicide, study says

Areeba Khwaja

Researchers at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work found that untreated depression and physical health issues are to blame for greater suicide among older Americans in a recent study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“Untreated depression can lead to hopelessness and despondency, or feeling that life is no longer worth living,” professor of social work Diana DiNitto said.

Contrary to popular belief, suicide rates are higher among older adults than younger adults. Men in particular tend to view suicide as acceptable or rational, especially among older adults, according to social work professor Namkee Choi. Statistically speaking, men have higher rates of completed suicides than women do, and older men are more likely to use firearms than any other age or gender group.

The data for the study came from the National Violent Death Reporting System, a state-based system that covers all types of violent deaths, including homicides and suicides. It is managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Choi and DiNitto used data of suicide victims from 2005 to 2014 for their study.

“Higher rates (of suicide) may also be due to serious physical illnesses, lack of appropriate palliative care, concerns about being a caregiver, financial burdens on the family or isolation and lack of social contacts,” Choi said.

According to Choi and DiNitto, their research indicates a need for more affordable and accessible long-term and palliative care, or care for serious or life-limiting illnesses, for older adults who suffer from serious health problems or pain. They added that more mental health services for depression are also needed.

After analyzing coroner and medical reports, the researchers said that suicide notes mentioned unremitting pain from severe conditions such as cancer and musculoskeletal disease as the most common reason, as well as loss of independence or the loss of loved ones.

They also noted that longer life expectancies didn’t translate to healthier lives. An increasing number of people 85 years old and older face chronic and painful conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, that often are associated with debilitating mental health issues. Because such chronic illnesses and untreated depression are risk factors for suicide, they can influence a person’s decision to commit suicide.

“Depression also reduces motivation for self-care among older adults with chronic health problems,” Choi said.

The researchers said they also aim to promote disclosure and educational services for people who provide formal and informal care. Additionally, they said people should learn how to provide support, restrict access to guns and alcohol and take expression of suicidal thoughts more seriously.

“We are continuing to research the topic to find clues about how to respond to the underlying causes of suicide,” DiNitto said. “Making life more comfortable for older, seriously ill adults may prevent them from becoming hopeless and taking suicidal actions.”