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Cornelius' death at 75 brings attention to suicides late in life
February 8th, 2012
11:03 AM ET

Cornelius' death at 75 brings attention to suicides late in life

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.

Older adults face mobility challenges and chronic health problems - issues they haven’t had to face in other times of their lives.

“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:

American Foundation of Suicide Prevention

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:  800-273-TALK (8255)


soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Portland tony

    To quote an old blues lyric "I'm tired of living yet afraid of dying". Some may decide they've been there and done it all Others haven't and want to go on forever. What ever, let's respect their choice.

    February 8, 2012 at 13:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Isabelle

    The health of older men in general is neglected by social and healthcare organizations. At most senior centers and long term care facilities almost all activities are geared to women. As far as suicide research and prevention goes I think Dr. Kennedy is correct “It’s a prejudice." Even the NIH and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention do very little to address suicide in the elderly. It's really a sad commentary on our society that after people have spent a lifetime as productive citizens we believe it is ok for them to feel they have no alternative to suicide.

    February 8, 2012 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Rob

    “It’s the threat to one’s independence. It’s the disability.”

    I'd venture to say it's the depression as a result. Diagnos and treat the depression. Depression is not just a young persons disease.

    February 8, 2012 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Alessandra

      "This 'culture' is baneful and iiinpsd lacking in beauty, proportion and order."The same as all other cultures if you actually live in them day to day, as opposed to observing them like a tourist through a shimmer of exoticism. Life is just pretty hard and boring unless you decide to see the beauty in it. It is a decision.Lose the scare quotes. They look like adolescent rebellion. This "culture" is as much a culture as any of the other cultures that are the objects of adoration of those who enjoy despising it. Oh, and another thing – this American culture is certainly Western – fully European, fully Greco-Roman, etc -, not "pseudo-", so when you use "pseudo" it looks like you are flinging that as a term of abuse at the culture, a pseudo-culture. So it is sloppy and inexact to formulate it the way you have, and that also looks juvenile and semi-literate.It has been fashionable to sneer at American culture for at least a century now – the Germans brought the art to perfection in the Nazi era – and at Western culture for at least as long, in case you fancy yourself daring or cutting-edge or truly rebellious. In fact it's a very standard and well-accepted pose, so there's your rebelliousness for you. You of course may be too young to have noticed any of this, but plenty of people have gotten there before you and the old thing is pretty well ragged with use.There is an absolute reform and it's called renunciation, or asceticism. It's the life of the spirit. You cannot reform cultures to achieve the state of perfection you seek, because culture and living around other humans, with their egos and wants and needs and fears, is itself the problem. All cultures have their good and sick sides. They just have different ones.I know it is so tempting to look longingly at some ther culture as if those people, those people, now they really know how to live. It's all the better if it is some little-known culture, something remote that other people are not really familiar with. It's the kind of tourism snobbery that most people never identify let alone defend themselves against.

      April 8, 2012 at 08:00 | Report abuse |
  4. COMPASSION FOR HUMANITY

    bless you mr cornelious and may you live long amongst your many fans. I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY TO ALL WHO READ THIS! THIS COULD BE YOU AT HIS AGE GET YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER WHO KNOWS WHEN YOUR OLD MAYBE YOUR VOTE WILL HAVE HAD AN IMPACT ON OLDER AMERICANS AND THD WAY THEIR TREATED AND THE CARE THEY GET

    February 8, 2012 at 20:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. COMPASSION FOR HUMANITY

    bless you mr cornelious and may you live long amongst your many fans. I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY TO ALL WHO READ THIS! THIS COULD BE YOU AT HIS AGE. GET YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER. WHO KNOWS, WHEN YOUR OLD, MAYBE YOUR VOTE WILL HAVE HAD AN IMPACT ON OLDER AMERICANS, AND THE WAY THEIR TREATED, AND THE CARE THEY GET!

    February 8, 2012 at 20:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lisa

    I am a mental health professional who works primarily with suicidal patients and the elderly. This article emphasizes the multiplicity of needs for aged population. Our society tends to dismiss their concerns as "old age," and they walk around invisible. Many cultures revere the elderly for their wisdom and contribution. We as Americans need to heed this warning and look at our contributions to he continuing increase in elderly suicides.

    February 9, 2012 at 08:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Harry Ball

    He was 75. I really don't see what the big deal is. Dying on your own terms is better that withering away like some old sick dog. Kudos to Don for leaving this earth when he was good and ready.

    February 9, 2012 at 09:09 | Report abuse | Reply
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