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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Elderly suicide

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

We may well wonder what lies behind the fact that suicide rates tend to increase in the oldest age groups for both men and women. According to the latest available figures from the Office for National Statistics, rates after middle age may decrease until the age of 80 to 84 years, but after that they begin to rise.

Many factors contribute to this widely seen phenomenon around the world, says the report, such as psychiatric illness, deterioration of physical health and functioning, and social factors.

When looking at age-specific rates of suicide in 2017, among all age ranges, the rates increase with age and are highest among those 45 to 49 years old (15.6 deaths per 100,000 population). The rates then decrease until the age of 80 to 84 years, after which they start to rise again. The suicide rate among people aged 85 years and over was higher than at 60 to 84 years.

Regional picture

There are significant regional variations too. Looking at rates of suicide by English region, in 2017, the region with the highest rate was the North East (10.8 per 100,000) and the region with the lowest rate was London (7.7 per 100,000). But Scotland has the highest overall rate of suicide in the UK.

Men at much greater risk of suicide

Since around 1990, men have been at least three times as vulnerable to death from suicide as women. Research by the Samaritans suggests that this greater risk 'is due to a complex set of reasons, including increased family breakdown leaving more men living alone; the decline of many traditionally male-dominated industries; and social expectations about masculinity: They have seen their jobs, relationships and identity blown apart. There is a large gap between the reality of life for such men and the masculine ideal.'

Divorce and risk of suicide

Relationship breakdown can also contribute to suicide risk. The greatest risk is among divorced men, who in 2015 were almost three times more likely to end their lives than men who were married or in a civil partnership.

People in less well-off areas more likely to end their lives

People who live in more deprived areas – where there is less access to services, work and education – are more at risk of suicide.

People among the most deprived 10% of society are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than the least deprived 10% of society.

People who work as carers, in the arts or as low-skilled workers have a significantly higher risk of suicide than those in other occupations, according to a recent study of suicide by occupation in England. Men who work as skilled manual workers are at greater risk, as are female nurses and nursery and primary school teachers.

The lowest risk of suicide was found among corporate managers and directors, professionals including health professionals, and people working in customer service and sales.

Late-life suicide

According to academic research, Suicide in Older Adults by Conwell, Van Orden and Caine: 'Suicide at any age is a tragedy for the individual, his or her family and friends, and the communities of which they are a part. At a population level, suicide is also a major public health problem, accounting for over 34,500 deaths each year in the United States and an estimated one million or more worldwide… We make the case that late-life suicide is a cause for enormous concern that warrants ongoing attention from researchers, health care providers, policy makers, and society at large.'

Risk for baby boomers

'While the steady reduction in suicide rates among older adults is encouraging, the recent rise in rates by those in the middle years is a cause for serious concern. Birth cohorts tend to carry with them a characteristic propensity to suicide as they age. The “baby boom” cohort, those born between 1946 and 1964, has had relatively higher suicide rates at any given age than earlier or subsequent birth cohorts… as the baby boom cohort, a group with historically high rates of suicide, enters older adulthood, the time of greatest risk, in such large numbers, we anticipate that the rate of suicide in men and women will rise again, resulting in substantial increases in the absolute numbers of senior citizens dying by their own hands.'

I'll be looking at how relatives and friends cope in the aftermath of a suicide in a forthcoming post.


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