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Illness, isolation raise depression risk in elderly MORE INFO
Social isolation and illness contribute to risk of suicide and depression among elderly

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Date published: 1/13/2008

BY DONYA ARIAS

FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR

Pat Brown thought her 71-year-old stepfather had suffered a heart attack when she found him on the floor of his woodworking shop on Memorial Day in 2002. When emergency medical technicians arrived, they discovered the gun Paul Adkins had used to kill himself.

Brown believes Adkins' mounting credit card debt and the knowledge that his beloved wife was succumbing to Alzheimer's disease--a fact he shared with no one--led him to take his life.

Unfortunately, her stepfather was a textbook case of suicide among the elderly, a longstanding public health problem that's particularly widespread among older white men.

Suicide claims more than 31,000 American lives each year. And in the Fredericksburg area as well as nationwide, those age 65 and older are at an increased risk for taking their own lives.

Compared with those in younger age groups, the elderly are less likely to seek mental health care and are also more lethal in their suicide attempts.

Accurate local statistics are hard to come by because family members often merely put "died at home" in a loved one's obituary, ashamed or especially grief-stricken by a suicide.

"The one thing I'd love to be able to tell anybody [contemplating suicide] is, Give me a second, just one second, and we can help," said Pat Holland, senior-services coordinator for the Rappahannock Area Agency on Aging. "We need you in our lives."

Research shows 90 percent of those who die by suicide suffered from depression or another mental health or substance-abuse disorder. But many are either undiagnosed, untreated or both.

It's startling to realize that 50 percent of older adults who took their own lives told their family doctors within a week of their deaths that they were depressed and/or suicidal, said Dr. Paula Clayton, medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The group sponsored a recent symposium on suicide in the elderly.

More needs to be done, Clayton and other health advocates say, to alert health practitioners to the depression risk among older adults and to help all Americans reach out for mental health treatment.

"Depression is not a normal part of aging," said Suicide Prevention Action Network USA Executive Director Jerry Reed. "We have science, we have behaviors, we have treatments that can successfully treat depression, so it doesn't have to be that way."

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SUICIDE RATE FOR ELDERLY The latest federal report, based on 2004 data, shows Americans age 65 and older have a suicide rate of 14.3 per 100,000, compared with 11 per 100,000 for the general population. For white men age 85 and older, the rate jumps to almost 50 per 100,000. TREATMENT EFFORTS At a recent symposium, health experts discussed encouraging studies showing that treatment with antidepressants--given by a primary-care physician--significantly reduced the suicide risk for the elderly. An emergency-room counseling program for those who have attempted suicide is being tailored for older adults, and advocates hope insurance companies eventually will pay for case managers to check in on homebound seniors and identify depression and suicide warning signs.