Even though rates went down in recent years, suicide among the elderly is still disproportionately high compared to other age groups.
The reason for elderly suicide is primarily depression, and experts say the causes for depression can be many, including isolation, loneliness, illness and more.
"The elderly suffer a great many losses," Prevent Elderly Suicidesaid Dr. Lanny Berman, Executive Director of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS). "When they get depressed they tend to isolate and withdraw."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Relative to those younger, rates of completed suicide are highest among the elderly (age 80 and over)."
The CDC numbers also show that while people age 65 and over made up 12.9 percent of the 2009 population, that same group made up 15.9 percent of the suicides. For people age 65 and over, the rate of suicides in 2009 was 14.8 per 100,000.
Age alone does not determine the likelihood of suicide: Berman and other experts agree that access to guns, being white and being male are all factors, in addition to age.
"White males comprise about 80 percent of suicides," said Berman, who says he has "no answer" for why race factors into suicide. "Men are more aggressive and use violent methods. They don't reach out for help like women do. Men who get into psychiatric trouble help tend to act versus talk."
For all suicides, people use firearms more than 50 percent of the time, and for all age groups there are 3.7 male suicides for each female suicide, based on CDC statistics.
Another factor for suicides is geography: intermountain states consistently have the highest suicide rates, according to statistics from the AAS.
Historically, elderly suicide rates peaked in 1987 at 21.8 percent per 100,000, according to the AAS and the CDC, and had declined 28 percent by 2009. Older adults attempt suicide less than younger groups, but have a higher completion rate. As of 2009, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
The AAS cites the most common risk factors for suicide in the elderly:
- The recent death of a loved one
- Physical illness
- Uncontrollable pain or fear of a prolonged illness
- Perceived poor health
- Social isolation and loneliness
- Major changes in social roles (such as retirement)
A study released in 2011 by the CDC found that suicide rates also rise and fall with current economic times. Not only can an individual or family suffer financial hardships, but also during significant national crises, whole communities can be disrupted and therefore affect the support systems in place. Reviewing data from 1928-2007, the study found that the highest suicide rate in U.S. history was during the Great Depression (1929-1933).
When it comes to preventing suicide, Berman says women tend to affiliate more with groups and engage in activities authorities recommended to help with depression. Experts note that depression is different from typical sadness and grief and it can interfere with one's ability to function normally.
"The support of attachment can't be underestimated," he said. "Good attachments are life-sustaining."
People can make these attachments through with hobbies and activities that require interaction with others. A person providing elderly home care, or a highly-trained caregiver providing dementia home care, can encourage more social interaction. Berman says early detection and treatment for depression that includes therapy and medication can also save lives.
The warning signs for suicide can be remembered by a mnemonic: ISPATHWARM? This stands for Ideation, Substance Abuse, Purposelessness, Anxiety, Trapped, Hopelessness, Withdrawal, Anger, Recklessness, and Mood Changes.
If someone exhibits any of the warning signs, the AAS recommends calling a mental health professional immediately. Phone numbers can be found on their site, www.suicidology.org.
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center, www.sprc.org, provides fact sheets for people in specific professions – such as in the clergy, first responders, and law enforcement who might come in contact with those who are suicidal.