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Depression and Suicide Facts for Older Adults

Major depression, a significant predictor of suicide in older adults, is a widely under recognized and under treated medical illness. In fact, several studies have found that many older adults who commit suicide have visited a primary care physician very close to the time of the suicide: 20% on the same day, 40% within one week, and 70% within one month of the suicide.

These findings point to the urgency of enhancing both the detection and the adequate treatment of depression as a means of reducing the risk of suicide among the elderly.

Older Americans are disproportionately likely to commit suicide. Comprising only 13% of the U.S. population, individuals ages 65 and older accounted for 19% of all suicide deaths in 1997. The highest rate is for white men ages 85 and older: 64.9 deaths per 100,000 persons in 1997, about 6 times the national U.S. rate of 10.6 per 100,000.

An estimated 6% of Americans ages 65 and older in a given year, or approximately 2 million of the 34 million adults in this age group in 1998, have a diagnosable depressive illness (major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or dysthymic disorder). In contrast to the normal emotional experiences of sadness, grief, loss, or passing mood states, depressive disorders can be extreme and persistent and can interfere significantly with an individual’s ability to function.

Dysthymic disorder as well as depressive symptoms that do not meet full diagnostic criteria for a disorder are common among the elderly and are associated with an increased risk of developing major depression. In any of its forms, however, depression is not a normal part of aging.

Difficult to diagnose

Depression often co-occurs with other medical illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Because many older adults face such physical illnesses as well as various social and economic difficulties, individual health care professionals often mistakenly conclude that depression is a normal consequence of these problems—an attitude often shared by the patients themselves. These factors conspire to make the illness underdiagnosed and under-treated.

Both doctors and patients may have difficulty identifying the signs of depression

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