Suicide in Older Adults

When people think of suicide in older adults, the first thing that often comes to mind is the issue of “assisted suicide.”  But suicide in other contexts is a significant issue among older adults.  One factor, of course, is that as individuals grow older, they may experience one or more physical illnesses, and physical illness can increase an older adult’s risk for depression and/or suicidal ideation.

Research shows that older adults suffering from depression and/or experiencing suicidal thoughts are not likely to seek psychiatric care (Conwell, 1993). However, data indicates that an older adults contemplating suicide may well have visited a primary care doctor but the signs and symptoms of suicide have gone unnoticed.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following may be risk factors for suicide among all ages:

  • Family history of suicide
  • Previous suicide attempt(s), although this factor is less likely in older adults than in younger populations
  • History of mental disorders, especially depression
  • History of alcohol or substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Social isolation
  • Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
  • Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
  • Physical Illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods

According to Conwell, of the risk factors listed above, for the general adult population “the most powerful is the presence or past history of psychiatric illness and suicide attempts.” For older adults specifically, physical and chronic illnesses have been among the strongest factors.  Cancer-related illness, particularly, has been found to put older adults at risk.  A study from Brown University states that, “elders who died of suicide were 51.94 times more likely than those who died by injury to have a history of cancer.”  This information may suggest that the more serious and chronic a person’s illness is, the greater risk their risk for suicide.

On the other hand, the CDC points to many protective factors that may reduce an individual’s suicidal thoughts and behavior.   These protective factors include:

  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for help-seeking
  • Family and community support
  • Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation

Individuals working with older adults can have significant impact on the possibility of suicide by finding ways to maximize protective factors.

The information in the article above was drawn from the following sources:

  • Cancer Puts Elders at Risk for Suicide. (1997). Brown University Long-Term Care Quality Advisor, 9(17), p.3. Retrieved from Master File Premier database.
  • Caruso, K. (2009). Elderly Suicide. www.suicide.org/elderly-suicide.html. Retrieved August 16, 2016
  • Conwell, Yeates.  (1993). Suicide in Elderly Patients.  In Schnieder, L.S., Lebowitz, B.D., Friedhoff, A.J. & Reynolds, C.F (Ed.), Diagnosis and Treatment of Depression in Late Life. (pp. 397-418).  American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
  • Koenig, H.G. (2006). Suicide in the Elderly: Case Discussion (pp. 1188).  Durham, NC: The Southern Medical Association.
  • The New York Times.  August 7, 2013. Suicide Rates are High Among the Elderly. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  • USA State Suicide Rates and Rankings Among the Eldery and Young. (2012). American Association of Suicidology: Elderly Suicide Fact Sheet. Retrieved August 16, 2016