Suicide prevention efforts for older adults should respond to the strong association between physical disease and suicide in this age group, according to members of a research team that investigated self-harm (that is, suicide attempt-related injuries) in three large English hospitals.
The team compared people 55 years of age and older with “middle-aged patients” (35-54 years of age) treated for a first-time episode of self-harm. Their research revealed that “compared to middle-aged patients, older patients used alcohol less frequently at the time of self-harm, more often tried to avoid discovery, more often premeditated their attempts, and, finally, more often expressed an intention to die or left a suicide note.” Although the rate of another incident of self-harm was lower for older adults than middle-aged people, older adults were more likely to die during subsequent attempts. Physical health problems among older adults predicted the likelihood of subsequent attempts of self-harm. Other risk factors for suicide – including current psychiatric treatment, alcohol abuse, and hopelessness – “hardly contributed to the risk of repetition.” Physical health problems were not associated with the risk of repeated suicide attempts among middle-aged patients. The authors suggest that their research (1) supports the need for programs for older adults whose suicidal behavior is associated with physical ailments and (2) underscores the importance of not generalizing risk factors for suicide from one age group to another (especially from population studies done predominantly on younger people to the older adult population).