How common is suicide among older adults? Older Americans are disproportionately likely to die by suicide. Here are some facts from the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • Although they comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population, people age 65 and older accounted for 16 percent of suicide deaths in 2004.
  • 14.3 of every 100,000 people age 65 and older died by suicide in 2004, higher than the rate of about 11 per 100,000 in the general population.
  • Non-Hispanic white men age 85 and older were most likely to die by suicide. They had a rate of 49.8 suicide deaths per 100,000 persons in that age group.

What Role Does Depression Play?

Depression, one of the conditions most commonly associated with suicide in older adults, is a widely under-recognized and undertreated medical illness. Studies show that many older adults who die by suicide — up to 75 percent — visited a physician within a month before death. These findings point to the urgency of improving detection and treatment of depression to reduce suicide risk among older adults.

The risk of depression in the elderly increases with other illnesses and when ability to function becomes limited. Estimates of major depression in older people living in the community range from less than 1 percent to about 5 percent, but rises to 13.5 percent in those who require home healthcare and to 11.5 percent in elderly hospital patients.

An estimated 5 million have subsyndromal depression, symptoms that fall short of meeting the full diagnostic criteria for a disorder. Subsyndromal depression is especially common among older persons and is associated with an increased risk of developing major depression. There are many treatments for depression.


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The Role of Race and Ethnicity in Depression

Some ethnic or racial groups at higher risk of suicide. For every 100,000 people age 65 and older in each of the ethnic/racial groups below, the following number died by suicide in 2004:

  • Non-Hispanic Whites — 15.8 per 100,000
  • Asian and Pacific Islanders — 10.6 per 100,000
  • Hispanics — 7.9 per 100,000
  • Non-Hispanic Blacks — 5.0 per 100,000 R

Regardless of race, ethnicity or age, caregivers should look for the warning signs of depression that include extreme sadness, loss of interest, social isolation and unexplained weight loss.

What Research is Being Done?

NIMH-funded researchers designed a program for health-care clinics, to improve recognition and treatment of depression and suicidal symptoms in elderly patients. A recent study of the program showed that it reduced thoughts of suicide and that major depression improved.

Examples of other ongoing or recently completed NIMH-funded studies on topics related to depression and suicide in older adults include:

  • Overcoming barriers to treatment for depression
  • Improving adherence to treatment
  • The relationship between other medical illnesses and depression
  • Physical function and depression
  • Depression treatment for depressed older adults in homecare
  • Treatment services for depression
  • Death rates of depressed older adults, compared to others
  • Depression treatment for low-income older adults
  • Depression treatment for caregivers of older adults

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the National Institutes on Health (NIH) supports innovative science that will profoundly transform the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental disorders, paving the way for a cure. Visit the organization online at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/.