Doctors study why elderly prone to commit suicide

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Dr. Allan Anderson remembers with frustration how the retired professional who was losing his eyesight calmly explained he would kill himself once he became blind.

He didn't wait that long.

Senior citizens commit suicide at higher rates than any other age group, and with graying Baby Boomers -- already more prone to suicide than other generations -- entering the riskiest years, psychiatrists fear that could soon worsen.

Now researchers are uncovering factors -- such as lack of social support, poor sleep patterns, and memory or other brain problems that sometimes hit seniors -- that could help primary care physicians spot elderly patients at risk of suicide and intervene.

It's hard: Many of today's seniors are the generation of the stiff upper lip when it comes to mental health. Ask how they're feeling and you may hear a litany about aching joints, but they're far less likely to admit to depression, said Anderson, a geriatric psychiatrist in Cambridge, Md.

That leaves doctors and loved ones to notice subtle clues like a senior not discussing a much-beloved hobby anymore -- or to struggle to help the elderly surmount a physical loss, like Anderson's patient who had no family to lean on when his vision faded.

Most are not terminally ill, and thus these are largely preventable deaths, insists Dr. Yeates Conwell, a University of Rochester specialist in elderly suicide.

Americans 65 and older account for about 13 percent of the population but almost a fifth of all suicides. The national rate is 11 suicides for every 100,000 people, about the same for teens. But the risk steadily rises with age -- and most at risk are older white men: 33 of every 100,000 of them commit suicide every year, translating to 4,655 suicides in 1998 alone.

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