Suicide is on the increase for middle-age and older Americans. 

Why?

The nation was shocked when beloved actor/comedian Robin Williams took his own life. Williams was 63. 

Williams was in the age group (45 to 64) possessing the highest suicide rate in the nation. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports the suicide rate for this age group is higher than that among the young and the elderly. The rate increased 40 percent between 1999 and 2011. 

What is the explanation for this?

Referred to as the ‘worrying trend,’ the number of suicides in the 45-64 group has increased dramatically while other group rates have dropped, edged up somewhat or stayed the same. Generally, men are more prone to kill themselves than women. Men are now 60 percent more likely to take their lives during their middle-age years than the men of their father’s generation.

Traditionally, the elderly have been the most in peril for suicide but no longer. The 45 to 64 age group exceeded them over the past 10 years as the Baby Boomers arrived at middle age.

Baby Boomers

Baby boomers may find aging more difficult than their predecessors because we have been so dead-set on outsmarting it. Fifty is the new 30 and all that jazz. Resist though we may, there are some ruthless health aspects of aging we may successfully ward off temporarily but probably not indefinitely or infinitely.

Add to that financial woes. Boomer parents were probably better off financially at this age than their boomer children. People are staying in the workforce until they drop because they can’t afford to quit and because they need health insurance. The 9 to 5 grind (or even more weekly hours than that) is taxing on an older body. 

Some have lost long-standing employment, throwing them into a frenzy of worry about money, security and their twilight years.  

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As was once commonplace, multi-generations are now forced to live under one roof because people can’t afford their own homes. This can be stressful. 

Worsening health conditions and the amplified use and misuse of prescription drugs are also potential factors in the increased rate of suicide in this age group.

10th Leading Cause of Death

In 2011, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in America, with 39,518 people taking their own lives, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Someone died by their own hand every 13.3 minutes that year. 

One factor linked to the increase in this age group, particularly among men, is the high divorce rates that occurred when this group was younger and which effected them. Men may be alone whereas men of the previous generation weren’t alone at this juncture of their life.

Boomers are far less religious than their counterparts, which may feature in this syndrome. 

“Old folks want to leave assets to their kids, not bills to be paid. Also, fewer fear the wrath of God either because they are non-believers or because they think God should understand the nobility of this reason for suicide.”

~Jeff Pollard, age 67, former newspaper editor

Suicide Contagion

Suicide contagion also plays a part in the escalating rates. This is imitative behavior. Whenever there is massive media coverage about a celebrity suicide there is a link to both increased and decreased rates of suicides, particularly among youngsters. 

When news glorifies, glamorizes or sensationalizes suicide this is associated with a surge in suicide rates. Moreover, detailed accounts of how the act was carried out are linked to an escalation in that particular method of suicide. 

Methods of Choice

Women committing suicide usually do so via an overdose or poisonous substance. Thirty percent of female suicide victims use a gun. 

Men primarily shoot themselves. Only 12 percent take poison. 

Twenty five percent of both male and female suicides are done by means of suffocation or hanging. 

Some researchers believe the greater accessibility to firearms in the rural western states contributes to the higher suicide rates in that part of the country.

The Brain

The brains of suicide victims studied postmortem show a number of obvious differences compared to those who died from other causes. (Mann & Currier 2012)

The parts of the brain studied were those related to mood, thinking and stress response.  This study detected neurobiological deficiencies related to depression and other fundamental mental disorders as well as acute or protracted stressors. 

Neurobiological means an illness caused by genetic, metabolic or other biological factors. Psychiatric disorders are often considered neurobiological. When the neurobiological systems are changed, this has consequences later in life. 

The hypothalamic adrenal (HPA) axis along with the serotonergic and noradrenergic systems have been studied for decades in regard to suicidal behavior and severe depression. The hypothalamus is a part of the brain that produces hormones controlling mood, body temperature, hunger, sex drive, heart rate, thirst, sleep and release of hormones from glands including and importantly the pituitary gland.

When the hypothalamus doesn’t function correctly this may be due to genetics, inflammation or infection or injury (including surgery, radiation or trauma.)

When examined, the hypothalamic adrenal (HPA) axis and the serotonergic and noradrenergic systems all exhibited aberrations in those who displayed suicidal or depressed behavior. These three systems are reactive to stress and beg the question as to how genes and childhood experience form stress reactions in the brain and thereby affect the danger of suicide in a major depression episode. 

“Suicide is the result of clinical depression which has increased significantly in the US. People kill themselves because this disorder of the brain affects the way they think, feel and behave. They do not see a way out of their situation. Maybe a better question would be to ask why depression is on the rise and why people don't get treatment.”

~Jane McCray, age 61, BSN; school counselor, master’s degree in counseling

These studies also reveal a reduction in serotonin transporter binding in the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex and anterior cingulate in the brains of people who have committed suicide. The prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate are linked to decision-making, willed action and mood. 

When there is not enough serotonin in the brain, this may impair decision making abilities. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. Its job is to send messages from one area of the brain to another. It influences many body functions and various psychological tasks. When serotonin is deficient, messages go awry and behavior can change. 

When abnormalities occur in the brain this ups the chance of thoughtless and disinhibited behavior increasing the risk for suicide.

Heritability

Studies of families, twins and adoptees show indications of the heritability of attempted suicide and suicide, approximating the heritability for suicide between 21 and 50 percent and for suicidal behavior and ideation between 30 to 55 percent. Ideation means the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas. 

Conduction of suicidal behavior may occur because the origin is in genes and early life experience as well as distorted stress responses that are inherited. 

Childhood Trauma

When a child undergoes a traumatic experience, such as neglect, sexual or physical abuse, severe family disorder or parental loss, this is linked to suicidal behavior. Neurobiological systems may alter as a result of early life damage. 

These alterations can intensify a person’s defenselessness against the development of psychiatric disorders, increased stress sensitivity and personal and behavioral characteristics such as aggression and impulsivity as he ages, all of which are connected to higher jeopardy for suicidal acts. 

Suicide Hotline

There are numerous influences contributing to the alarmingly high rate of suicide in the 45 to 64 age group. If you or someone you know is suicidal call 1-800-273-8255. Talk to someone. Suicide often occurs in a random moment of ambivalence. If you think you are in jeopardy, or a loved one is, seek help NOW. 

 

Cindi Pearce is a graduate of Ohio University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism back in the dark ages (aka before computers, the Internet and cell phones. Heck, before electric typewriters!) A former newspaper writer/columnist and photographer, her fiction and non-fiction work has been published in national magazines. A full-time freelance writer, as well as an avid gardener, an artist and yoga aficionado, Cindi is a Baby Boomer and proud of it. She has survived the gnarly challenges of the sandwich generation and lived to tell the tale. Cindi has somehow managed to stay married to her first and only husband for nearly 35 years. They are the parents of three grown children and the grandparents of one. She has five large, raucous dogs, five acres to mow on her beloved zero turn mower, and gets the biggest kick out of making people laugh on Facebook. (P.S. She refuses to cut her hair short.)