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Why Older Men Are Killing Themselves at Alarming Rates

More than half of deaths by suicide are among adults age 45 and older


spinner image extreme close up of a depressed man holding his face in his hand on a gray background to reflect the rising rate of suicide in older adults namely men
Arman Zhenikeyev / Getty Images

Suicide rates among older adults are rising, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and men are most at risk.

Between 2001 and 2021, suicide rates increased significantly for men ages 55 to 74 and women 55 to 84. Among older men, the suicide rate generally increased with age, with men 85 and older having the highest of any age group (55.7 suicide deaths for every 100,000 people). The report also found that firearm-related suicide was much more common in older men.

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Provisional data for 2022 from the CDC indicates that almost 53 percent of the record 49,449 deaths by suicide in the United States were among individuals age 45 and older. Among those ages 45 to 64, deaths by suicide increased nearly 7 percent since 2021; they rose more than 8 percent for those 65-plus. 

These increases stand out sharply compared to younger groups. During the same period, suicide deaths dropped more than 8 percent among individuals under age 24 and rose less than 1 percent among ages 25 to 44.

Suicide deaths happen throughout the year, but contrary to what many people think, suicides do not peak during the holidays but are actually more common during summer and fall.

Loneliness and social isolation

Just why older adults are at risk includes a host of factors including loneliness and social isolation, grief over the loss of a partner, and diminished personal autonomy. ​

Also, drastic changes in circumstances — such as retirement or a life-threatening physical or mental health diagnosis — may contribute to a crisis. The CDC’s release of its 2022 provisional estimates for suicide deaths suggests a trend that the final data released at the end of the year should confirm: Older adults — especially older men — are at particular risk of taking their lives.

“Oftentimes, there may be a dozen or more risk factors ongoing over many years and now they’re facing the death of a spouse or a new diagnosis of dementia or worsening pain. Any one of those can be a piling up of risk factors,” says psychiatrist Christine Moutier, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“In that older age group, suicidal behavior is more planned and gravitates toward more lethal means and they’re possibly less likely to be found and resuscitated. It’s also possible that the frailty aspect makes them more likely to succumb to a suicide attempt versus a younger person,” she says.

Complex and subtle signs

The factors that may cause someone to take their life are complex, just as the warning signs that may indicate their crisis. Such warning signs include avoiding social activities and not being interested in things they used to enjoy; giving away personal items; neglecting their health or grooming; expressing little concern for their safety; or being preoccupied with death.

Some signs are more subtle, says Thomas Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee who studies suicide. He’s written several books on the subject, including one to be published in February.

“It can look like sleep problems or a change in sleep. You can see a notable change in social engagement. There’s an edginess and agitation and irritability,” he says. “If those signs appear all of a sudden, it’s not necessarily a suicidal crisis, but it shouldn’t be ruled out.”

Joiner notes that older men “are the group most prone to concealing these warning signs.” 

Loved ones should listen to their gut

Moutier urges families to trust their gut instinct.

“We have our standard list of warning signs on suicide risk, but the truth is for each individual it needs to be customized, based on what we know about the person,” she says. “An older man may not express sadness. It may come across as irritable, angry and withdrawn. They’re not showing up for usual activities.”

One common sign is increased use of drugs or alcohol. She says an older man who has several health conditions may stop or take a break from medications, thinking, What’s the point? “If they start really talking about a sense of futility, it can almost sound rational. If they don’t seem like themselves, it’s something to explore,” Moutier says.

Because experts say women are more likely than men to seek help from health professionals for mental or physical conditions, older men may need some prodding.

“We need to recognize that in the United States, late-life suicide is most common among white males,” says Silvia Sara Canetto, a Colorado State University psychology professor who studies cultural beliefs about gender, age and suicide.

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She says beliefs in the United States are that “suicide is relatively understandable and relatively permissible for older adults and for persons with a physical illness or disability” and that “suicide is a masculine act, especially when it involves a firearm.” Her research has found that these beliefs are more likely to be endorsed by whites, which likely contributes to the high mortality by suicide of white older men.

Firearms a factor, especially for men

The gender imbalance about death by suicide is globally universal, says Mike Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University in Piscataway.

“Men tend to choose more violent means, and that typically means firearms,” he says. “When you choose a more violent method for suicide, you’re more likely to die.”

The CDC report found that firearm-related suicide rates in men increase with age, with men age 85 and older having the highest rate (45.9 per 100,000). Among men age 55 and older, rates for firearm-related suicide were nearly 3 to 14 times higher across age groups than rates for the next two most common methods, suffocation and poisoning.

All other leading causes of death have shown extraordinary declines in terms of prevalence of death, but suicide hasn’t.

—Peter Franz, clinical assistant professor at the Psychiatry Research Institute at Montefiore Einstein

Anestis urges gun owners to lock up their firearms and store them legally away from home.

“Simply, firearms stored unsecured in and around the house and in their worst moment being able to reach for it makes them more likely to die,” he says.

Anestis says guns are involved in less than 5 percent of all U.S. suicide attempts, but if someone dies by suicide, “it’s more often with firearms.”

Dearth of help for older adults

Peter Franz, a clinical assistant professor at the Psychiatry Research Institute at Montefiore Einstein in New York, focuses his research on suicide prevention intervention. He’s concerned that the rate of suicide death in 2020 was similar to the rate 100 years ago.

“The fact that we have not observed lasting reductions in suicide for the past 100 years suggests that we, as a society, need to do more to prevent these tragedies,” he says. “All other leading causes of death have shown extraordinary declines in terms of prevalence of death, but suicide hasn’t.”

Franz and colleagues conducted a randomized controlled trial with digital narrative-based bibliotherapy — using firsthand stories of suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts to support mental health— and concluded the method “may be an effective intervention for those at risk of suicide,” according to the 2022 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

“Our results demonstrate that people at risk for suicide who read selected suicide-related narratives posted on a digital social media platform reported a lower desire to die during a 2-week study period than individuals who did not read these stories,” the study says, noting that it “may work in part by increasing feelings of perceived shared experience and optimism.”

There is power in reaching out to support others, Franz says, citing a 2022 study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry that shows asking people directly about suicidal thoughts doesn’t increase suicide risk.

A government report about suicide intervention for older adults released in August noted the urgency to address what the report calls “an especially high-risk group” for suicide that’s also compounded by the aging boomer generation.

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The report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that “few evidence-based programs are currently available that aim specifically to prevent suicide among older adults, and research into program effectiveness among older adults is limited. The most recent evaluations of the evidence-based programs included in this report date back over a decade.”

Warning signs of suicide in older adults

Older adults contemplating suicide could exhibit the same warning signs as other adults, but the warning signs may also be somewhat different, Moutier says. She urges families to trust their instincts about a loved one’s potential suicidal thoughts and look for help if they suspect something is wrong.

Here are a few of the common warning signs from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Adults who talk about:

  • Wanting to die
  • Guilt or shame
  • Being a burden

Adults who feel:

  • Empty, hopeless, trapped or without a reason to live
  • Extremely sad, anxious, agitated or full of rage
  • Extreme emotional or physical pain

Adults who change behaviors, such as:

  • Planning or researching ways to die
  • Withdrawing from friends or giving away important items
  • Taking dangerous risks
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
  • Eating or sleeping more or less
  • Using drugs or alcohol more often

Other indications may include:

  • Avoiding social activities and no longer being interested in what they used to enjoy
  • Neglecting their health or grooming
  • Expressing little concern for their safety
  • Being preoccupied with death

Ways to help

Friends and family can help individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts by offering their support, as well as assistance from professionals when needed for suicide prevention.

The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline offer a five-step guide to support those at risk:

  1. Ask and talk about suicide, which may reduce rather than increase suicidal thinking.
  2. Keep individuals safe by their reducing access to lethal methods.
  3. Be present for them to limit their feelings of isolation and to increase social connection.
  4. Help them seek assistance, such as the 988 Lifeline that can offer hopefulness, which may help them feel less depressed and less suicidal.
  5. Continue to reach out so individuals feel supported and know others feel connected to them.

For those who would rather text than talk, the nonprofit Crisis Text Line is available by texting HOME to 741741. 

“The bigger picture here is that in the life span — in terms of suicidal behavior — as the decades go up, the lethality of suicidal behavior goes up and up. The ratio of attempts to deaths is 4 to 1, where in younger age groups, it’s 200 to 1,” Moutier says.

“Of folks who attempt and survive, 70 percent never attempt again. Second chances are important,” Anestis says. “And if you choose a violent method, you almost never get a second chance.”

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