Suicide is a public health problem and a leading cause of death in the United States. In a 2019 report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the suicide rate was highest among adults 85 years or older, and 90% of those who died by suicide had a diagnosable mental health condition.
Yale recently published a summary of its study on suicide risks among older adults diagnosed with dementia in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, which revealed that those over the age of 65 who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias are more than twice as likely to die from suicide compared to those older adults who have not developed dementia.
According to the study, the suicide rate was elevated among individuals age 65-74, and the number of suicide deaths within the first year of newly diagnosed dementia was 53% higher, with the risk being far greater within the first 90 days after a dementia diagnosis.
"With the rapidly growing geriatric population and continued increase in suicide rates for aging adults, this study sheds light on an overlooked facet of caring for older persons with dementia,” said Timothy Schmutte, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, and the paper’s lead author. “Hopefully, this study will raise awareness and promote early detection of older adults who are at-risk for suicidal thoughts and acts.”
Though there is no single cause for suicide, depression is the most common condition associated with it, and this condition is very common among individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Those diagnosed with dementia may experience severe depression, sudden mood or behavioral changes, overwhelming anxiety and stress. They may wrestle with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, in addition to feeling that they will be a burden to others because of the longevity of the disease.
Yet, these emotions and conditions are common characteristics of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, so it is important to note the gravity of each individual’s situation. When these conditions are extreme, they can put the affected individual at risk for suicide and should be addressed and closely monitored by a physician as well as by the caregiver and family members.
Moreover, if the individual with dementia verbalizes worries such as having no reason to live, feeling trapped, experiences unbearable emotional pain or even mentions a desire to kill himself or herself, these red flags need to be addressed immediately. Caregivers should seek professional help and counseling for their loved ones and themselves, and obtain assistance and information from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 274-8255.
The authors of the Yale study say the study supports the need for a more thorough assessment of those affected by dementia, including the importance of suicide screening, and also assess caregiver needs, as well as offer referrals for services and supports.