Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade, prompting concern that a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm.
More people in the U.S. now die of suicide than in motor-vehicle accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which published the findings in the May 3 issue of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. In 2010, there were 33,687 deaths from motor-vehicle crashes and 38,364 suicides.
Suicide has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly, and the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising. From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by about 28 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000; for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.
People 35 to 64 account for about 57 percent of suicides in the U.S.
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During the period studied, suicide went from the eighth-leading cause of death among middle-aged Americans to the fourth, behind cancer, heart disease and accidents.
The most pronounced increases were seen among men in their 50s, a group in which suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000. For women, the largest increase was seen in those ages 60 to 64, among whom rates increased by nearly 60 percent, to 7.0 per 100,000.
While suicide rates can be notoriously difficult to interpret, CDC and academic researchers said they were confident the data documented an increase in suicides, not a statistical anomaly. While reporting of suicides is not always consistent nationwide, the current numbers are, if anything, too low, some experts said. “It’s vastly underreported,” said Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has published research on rising suicide rates.
The reasons for suicide are often complex, and officials and researchers acknowledge that no one can explain with certainty what is behind the rise.
CDC officials cited a number of possible explanations, including that as adolescents people in this generation had also posted higher rates of suicide compared with other cohorts.
“It is the baby-boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide,” said the CDC’s deputy director, Ileana Arias. “There may be something about that group and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.”
The rise in suicides may also stem from the economic downturn in the past decade. Historically, suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks.
“The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period,” Arias said.
Another factor may be the widespread availability of opioid drugs such as OxyContin and oxycodone, which can be deadly in large doses.
Although most suicides are still carried out by using firearms, officials said there was a marked increase in poisoning deaths, which include intentional overdoses of prescription drugs, and hangings. Poisoning deaths were up 24 percent overall during the period studied, and hangings were up 81 percent.
Arias noted that the higher suicide rates might be due to a series of life and financial circumstances unique to the baby-boomer generation. Men and women in that group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children.
“Their lives are configured a little differently than it has been in the past for that age group,” Arias said. “It may not be that they are more sensitive or that they have a predisposition to suicide, but that they may be dealing with more.”
Preliminary research at Rutgers suggests that the risk for suicide is unlikely to abate for future generations. Changes in marriage, social isolation and family roles mean many of the pressures faced by baby boomers will continue in the next generation, Phillips said.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.