Western attitudes towards aging, physical and social impediments and impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are some of the factors responsible for high suicide rates in older adults, according to new research from Griffith University.

While the global rates of suicide in older individuals was found to have declined between 1998 and 2017, the findings published in Nature Aging consider the current issues facing older populations (such as the global pandemic) and highlight unreported cases of ‘silent suicide’ and overly simplistic approaches to suicide prevention.

Professor Emeritus Diego De Leo.

Led solely by Professor Emeritus Diego De Leo, an expert in suicide research and prevention at Griffith’s Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, the research proposes strategies for a multifaceted approach to suicide prevention.

“While suicide in old age has declined, this was probably not due to anti-suicide programs but to improved access to health assistance and better quality of life,” Professor De Leo said.

“Nevertheless, suicide among older adults still has high rates.

“Frailty, physical illness, loss of autonomy and dependency, together with loss of a partner and friends are important risk factors for suicide in old age. Loneliness is destined to become a social epidemic and a major contributor to suicide ideation, and the pandemic has exacerbated both social isolation and loneliness.

“Also, ageism is currently a powerful barrier to the proper care of older adults. We need to fight it much more aggressively than what we are currently doing.”

Cases of ‘silent suicide’, such as those due to voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED), are generally not registered as suicide cases, according to Professor De Leo, “even if VSED is a true suicide case, given that the person’s intention is to die”.

Studies that specifically clarify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on rates of death from suicide among older adults are not available yet; however, the research found it was conceivable that the pandemic had a negative impact on suicide in old age.

The 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Hong Kong was associated with an increase in the number of suicides in old age, especially in women. Compared to previous years, the increase was 30% of the expected numbers.

Professor De Leo proposes an integration of social prescriptions with pharmacotherapy for older adults at risk of suicide as promising lines of intervention, which he said would require better consideration and more research effort to understand and implement.

“The fight against stigma and the ageist way of thinking, which is pervasive in society, including among health professionals, must be pursued with great vigour,” he said.

“Additionally, successful aging requires promoting a culture of resilience and adaptation to the different stages of life as well as to the changes that come with advancing age.

“Promoting human rights of older people is an essential step in the path leading to this success.”

The research ‘Late-life suicide in an aging world’ has been published in Nature Aging.