February 8th, 2012
11:03 AM ET
The death of "Soul Train" founder Don Cornelius was ruled a suicide on Tuesday. His death at age 75 raises an issue often overlooked by the public: Suicide among older adults.
Cornelius died last week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to a statement from the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. His autopsy was conducted on Friday.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. While the perception is that suicides occur most commonly among young adults, statistics show that suicides are more likely to occur as people age. Elderly adults - defined as those over the age of 65 - are much more likely to die by suicide than teenagers.
“It’s not so much the illness,” said Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, about issues that elderly adults face. “It’s the threat to one’s independence. It’s the disability.”
In an interview last week with CNN, singer Gladys Knight said Cornelius appeared in ill health when she saw him recently. "Last time I saw him, he was pretty sick," Knight said. "He had lost a lot of weight, but he still had that thing about him."
In 2007, the suicide rate was 14.3 of 100,000 among people who were 65 and older, compared with 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people in the general population.
White males over the age of 85 are even more likely to die by suicide at a rate of 47 deaths per 100,000. Suicide rates are much lower among African Americans. And while elderly Americans held the highest suicide rates until the mid-2000s, middle-aged adults are now most affected.
“The factors that contribute are social isolation, use of alcohol, episodes of depression going untreated,” said Kennedy. Older men are less likely to seek help for mental disorders or depression.
Toxicology testing has been ordered in the Cornelius' case and the final report will be issued once results are analyzed, the coroner's office said.
The rate of suicide among the elderly is likely under-reported, because some adults may intentionally stop taking their life-saving medication such as insulin or heart medication, Kennedy added.
Suicides are a result of mental illnesses, said Dr. Paula Clayton, the medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder,” she said. “The most common one is depression. Depression really can hit you at any age.”
Cornelius' son, Tony, told HLN’s Showbiz Tonight, that “there was no indications other than his health was failing a bit. Nothing that would make me say, you know, that he would want to end his life this way. It's hard to believe. Sometimes I wonder, if he could come back here and if he were to know how people felt about him would he be, would he make that move? I mean, but again, when you're in that kind of darkness, it's really hard to tell but people really loved him."
For older adults, there is a stigma in seeking mental health or being depressed, making it more likely that they will avoid getting care, said Kennedy.
The states with the highest rates of suicide tend to have greater social distance. For example, a state like New York, which has more public transportation and a higher population density, has a much lower suicide rate (7.3 per 100,000) than a sparser state like Montana (22.5 per 100,000).
“I think it is access to people, health care and other things,” said Clayton, a psychiatrist. “When you get old enough you no longer drive. I think it's access to all these things.”
Despite persistently high rates of suicides in the older age group, the elderly have not been a focus in suicide prevention because there’s a belief that older adults have already lived their lives, Kennedy said.
“It’s a prejudice," he said. "It’s tragic when young people lose their lives. For an older adult, there’s not many years left. The life span is less valuable than a younger person’s.”
But the suicides have an impact. Studies show that suicides run in families – they can be “learned and passed onto the next generation,” he said.
“Just because it happens at the end of the person’s lifespan, it doesn’t mean it lacks social relevance."
There is growing awareness of the issue among people who are involved in the care of elderly adults. Efforts are under way to get more research on depression in the elderly, Clayton said. More doctors and health care workers who work with older populations are getting trained on recognizing depression and mental disorders.
For more information, please visit or call:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
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