By Krisha McCoy, MS
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
The challenges people face as they enter old age may contribute to seniors’ increased risk of depression and suicide, say researchers who have studied the issue. Depression is thought to be the major risk factor for most suicide deaths, and older people are at particularly high risk of developing depression. Unfortunately, depression often goes undiagnosed and untreated in older adults, and untreated depression can lead to suicide.
A number of other age-related factors may also contribute to higher rates of suicide among seniors, including:
- Sleep problems. Studies have shown that seniors who commit suicide tend to have poorer sleep quality than those who don’t.
- Possession of firearms. Firearms are the most common method older people use to commit suicide, so the risk of suicide is greater for seniors who have access to guns.
- Limited social support. Many seniors experience feelings of isolation, and people who feel socially isolated and lonely are more likely to experience depression and commit suicide. Spending time with family and friends can help.
- Deteriorating health. Seniors who feel that their health is poor, those who are experiencing chronic pain, and those who have been diagnosed with a serious illness are at an increased risk of suicide.
- Major life changes. Going through a major life event, such as retirement or the death of a loved one, increases the risk of suicide.
Suicide Risk Factors for Seniors
While older people make fewer suicide attempts than younger people, they have a higher rate of suicide completion. In fact, people over age 65 only make up 12 percent of the population, but they account for 16 percent of all suicide deaths, according to the most recent data available.
Certain ethnic groups are more likely to commit suicide, with whites, Asians and Pacific Islanders at higher risk than Hispanics and African-Americans. In addition, men are more than five times more likely than women to commit suicide in old age. Elderly white men are the most likely, with those aged 85 or older having the highest suicide risk of all.
Suicide Prevention for Seniors
The best way to spot depression and prevent suicide is to spot suicidal risk factors early on. It’s normal to feel sadness and grief when you experience a loss, for example, but if your blue mood just won’t go away, you may be depressed.
Signs of depression may include:
- Persistent sadness, feelings of emptiness and anxiety
- Hopeless or pessimistic attitude
- Feelings of helplessness or worthlessness
- Irritable mood
- Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Trouble with memory or concentrating
- Changes in sleep
- Changes in appetite
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Pain or other symptoms that can’t be explained by a medical condition
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of death or suicide, it’s critical to get help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) operates a 24-hour confidential suicide hotline.
If you are concerned that you might be depressed or at an increased risk of suicide, talk with your doctor. Depression is a medical condition that can be treated, and antidepressants, psychotherapy, or a combination can help you feel better.