WASHINGTON – People over 65 are more likely to commit suicide than other Americans,and the numbers will rise unless the medical community takes action,experts told the Senate Special Committee on Aging last week.
According to the American Association of Suicidology,in 2003 the number of suicides among those age 65 and older reached 5,248 nationwide. The number among people ages 15 to 24 was 3,988.
Although the rate of senior suicides has gone down nationally from 18.1 per 100,000 in 1994 to 14.6 per 100,000 in 2003,officials said the number could rise as baby boomers age.
According to state projections in Oregon,by 2030,older Americans will make up 20 percent of the population. Baby boomers will begin turning 65 in five years. As of 2004,according to the U.S. Census,12.4 percent of the population was 65 or older.
Oregon had the fourth-highest suicide rate of elderly people in the U.S. in 2003,27.12 per 100,000. As Oregon's population ages,the problem of late-life suicide will increase,Dr. Mel Kohn,Oregon's state epidemiologist, said.
Because of that rate,Oregon is the only state to implement a comprehensive suicide prevention plan for seniors,Kohn told the committee. The Older Adult Suicide Prevention Plan aims to prevent suicide among the older population through clinically based and community-based actions,public health surveillance,program evaluation and research.
The plan also emphasizes quality of primary medical care as a crucial strategy in senior suicide prevention. According to the plan's research,58 percent of seniors who committed suicide had seen their physicians within one month of their deaths. That suggests that those consultations could be a good opportunity for intervention.
However,Kohn said multidisciplinary collaboration is the key to success in addressing the problem.
“But there isn't really a single intervention that's going to fix problem. There's no pill that we're going to give out that,you know,is going to solve this whole thing. We really need a multifaceted approach,” Kohn said.
Although the plan also intends to develop public awareness of senior suicide prevention,it also faces challenges,such as funding,professional medical education and inequitable mental health care provided to seniors.
For Dr. Christopher Colenda,dean of medicine at Texas A&M University,the lack of quality mental health services for seniors is the result of inadequate training for primary care practitioners.
“Modifying the curriculum to include both geriatrics and longitudinal and integrated health care models could be a first step to address the issue of senior suicide,” Colenda said.
But integrating geriatric mental health care into primary care and community settings is just part of the solution for late-life suicide.
“Without foundation and reform,it will simply collapse,” said Colenda,who is also president of the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry,
Sen. Gordon H. Smith,R-Ore.,chairman of the Special Committee on Aging,highlighted Oregon's senior suicide prevention plan and said that improvement of mental health services for the elderly population should be a top priority for Congress.
“There is work being done at the federal level,but we still have a long way to go,” Smith said.