Suicide: Older Adults at Risk

National Suicide Prevention Week

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, an opportunity to discuss a subject that is too often considered “taboo.” According to the most recent statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate in the United States is climbing, despite the efforts of public health and mental health advocates to raise awareness and encourage people to seek help.

The most recent statistics from the CDC (from 2011) reveal that U.S. national suicide deaths rose slightly for the fifth year in a row from 12.1 per 100,000 in 2010 to 12.3 per 100,000 in 2011 (rates are per 100,000 individuals). Data from 2012 and 2013 have not yet been released.

Older men are particularly at risk for self-harm. While the risk of suicide declines for women with advancing age, statistics show that men’s risk increases as they get older. Older men die by suicide at a rate that is more than seven times higher than that of older women. White men aged 85+ die from suicide at a rate four times higher than the average rate of suicide nationally. Firearms are the most common method of suicide in older adults (67%), followed by poisoning (14%) and suffocation (12%).

Professionals, family members, and anyone caring for older adults should be aware of these risk factors for suicide:

  • history of or current depression
  • prior suicide attempts
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • medical conditions that limit independence or quality of life
  • chronic pain
  • loss of purpose
  • recent death of spouse/partner
  • social isolation
  • access to firearms
  • substance abuse
  • impulsivity due to cognitive impairment
Know the risk factors for suicide, and the signs of depression in older adults.

What can be done to prevent suicide attempts in older adults? We as professionals need to continue to educate ourselves about the risk of suicide, and regularly screen our clients for depression. We need to continue to talk openly with our clients about how they are feeling, instead of “shutting down” or dismissing comments about death or suicide. We need to take seriously any talk about suicide and guide our clients to the appropriate mental health treatment. We can also help limit depressed individuals’ access to guns and other methods of self-harm. Finally, we can help older adults to maintain a sense of purpose in their lives, which can counteract depression.

While suicide remains a serious concern, the recently-released CDC statistics do contain a glimmer of hope for older adults: the suicide rate for people age 85 and older decreased significantly from 17.6 (per 100,000) in 2010 to 16.9 in 2011.

Let us all continue to do what we can as professionals to help older adults live long and purposeful lives, and bring help to those who are struggling.


American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Administration on Aging