Middle-Age Suicides Continue to RiseSuicides amongst the middle-aged — 45 to 54 year olds — continued to rise for the second straight year in a row, from 2006 to 2007 (the last year we have the final government data on). This means this age group enjoys the highest suicide rate in the U.S. The rate in 2007 was 17.6 per every 100,000 people, up from 17.2 per 100,000 people in 2006.

Typically, according to the article in the New York Times, the eldest segment of the population — those 80 and older — suffers the highest suicide rate. Men typically commit suicide nearly four times as often as women, and most people who contemplate suicide would carry a depression diagnosis.

Since 2000, the age-adjusted death rate for suicide has increased by 8.6 percent, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.

We don’t know what causes these bumps in suicide rates. While there are lots of theories — 2007 was the year the real estate market really began to tumble — nobody knows for certain.

The head for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Dr. Paula Clayton, was quoted as saying it may have been caused by “easier access to guns and prescription drugs and what may be a higher incidence of depression among baby boomers.”

This, of course, made me consider checking myself into the local psychiatric hospital. Because I tend to go a little nuts when people speak from personal opinion rather than the data.

Gun ownership rates were steady for this period, as the National Center for Health Statistics notes that gun use for suicide was not statistically different: “In 2007, the age-adjusted death rate for firearm suicide and homicide was unchanged statistically from 2006.” In other words, it’s not the guns.

There also wasn’t a sudden increase in prescription drugs that would account for such a rise in suicide rates. IMS Health reports that dispensed prescriptions between 2006 and 2007 rose a steady 2.7 percent (which is half the increase from the year before, so the rate actually dropped significantly from 2006 to 2007). We expect prescription rates to steadily increase because the population itself grows every year and grows older every year too. Older people tend to be prescribed and take more medications.

We generally don’t have good data on annual prevalence rates for things like depression, so can’t say whether prevalence rates for depression went up from 2006 to 2007. We can, however, make a good educated guess that they did, based upon the suicide rates alone (suicide is a serious symptom of depression, so it pretty much goes without saying that if one increases, so does the other).

The upshot to a story like this is simple — suicides rose from 2006 to 2007, especially amongst the middle-aged — but we don’t really know why. If depression has increased amongst this group, it could be for a variety of reasons, none of which we can say for certain contributed to the rise in suicides. It could have been the failing real estate market, or the flailing economy and employment declines in that year, all of which may contributed to greater rates of depression in the population.

Or it could’ve been just a typical statistical up or down that normally occurs in a large population. Our expectation that death rates should always decline may simply be unrealistic, given the huge number of complex interactions that occur in society that may contribute to such changes. To pin it on a simplistic explanation (or expect a simplistic trend line down) may be simply expecting too much.

Read the full article: Rise in Suicides of Middle-Aged Is Continuing


Deaths: Final Data for 2007 [PDF – 555 KB]. National Vital Statistics Report (Released May 20, 2010)