Suicide a Midlife Risk?
The New York Times reports that suicide among men and women between the ages of 45 and 54 has increased by 20 percent from 1999 to 2004. For women between the ages of 45 to 54 the rate rose 31 percent, with a 28.8 percent rise in those between ages 50 and 54. Despite the suicide rate increase the overall number of women who died was 834 between the ages of 50 and 54. For men ages 45 to 54 the suicide rate increased 15.6 percent. Further studies show that overall, 1 out of 5 who commit suicide is a Vietnam Era Veteran, and 4 out of 5 people who commit suicide are men.
While midlife suicide has increased a whopping 20 percent overall, the suicide rate among teens has increased by 2 percent, and for individuals over the age of 65 it has actually decreased. Dr. Caine attributes some of this to the lack of a national support system for those between the ages of 19 and 65.
Experts say that the poignancy of a young death and higher suicide rates among the very old in the past have drawn the vast majority of news attention and prevention resources. For example, $82 million was devoted to youth suicide prevention programs in 2004, after the 21-year-old son of Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon, killed himself. Suicide in middle age, by comparison, is often seen as coming at the end of a long downhill slide, a problem of alcoholics and addicts, society’s losers.
“There’s a social-bias issue here,” said Dr. Eric C. Caine, co-director at the Center for the Study of Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, explaining why suicide in the middle years of life had not been extensively studied before.
The lack of concrete research has given rise to all kinds of theories, including a sudden drop in the use of hormone-replacement therapy by menopausal women after health warnings in 2002, higher rates of depression among baby boomers or a simple statistical fluke.
Currently researchers are leaning towards a correlation between the use and abuse of prescription drugs and suicide; as there was a staggering increase in the total number of drug overdoses, both intentional and accidental, during the same five year period.
Myrna M. Weissman, the chief of the department in Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology at New York State Psychiatric Institute, suggests that the growing pressures of modern life, the changes in the family unit, and the breakdown of family and friend support networks are the root of the problem.
More recently, reports of a study that spanned 80 countries found that around the world, middle-aged people were unhappier than those in any other age group, but that conclusion has been challenged by other research, which found that among Americans, middle age is the happiest time of life.
Epidemiologists also emphasize that at least another five years of data on suicide are needed before any firm conclusions can be reached about a trend.