Alcoholics' Suicide Risk Increases With Age

Older Alcoholics at Greater Risk, Study Finds

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Suicide risk is greater among alcoholics than the general population. Up to seven percent of those diagnosed with severe alcohol use disorders die by committing suicide each year.

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of suicide. Statistics show that at least one-third of all people who committed suicide met the criteria for alcohol abuse disorders.

Of those medically treated after a suicide attempt, alcohol use disorders was found to be a significant factor.

Now there is evidence that suicide risk among alcoholics increases as they become older. Middle age and older alcoholics are at a significantly higher risk for suicide compare to younger alcoholics.

The increased risk for suicide for alcoholics as they get older could prove to be a significant factor for baby boomers, many of whom have substance abuse problems, as they begin to reach retirement age.

Increased Risk for Suicide

"Alcoholism is a common disorder and is also a potent risk factor for suicide," said Kenneth R. Conner, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and first author of the manuscript. "This was the first study of a sample of adults across the age spectrum that explicitly focused on factors that increase the risk for suicide and medically serious suicide attempts associated with alcohol dependence."

For the purposes of the study, a medically serious suicide attempt was defined as one that required hospital admission for up to 24 hours and met one other criterion that described the type of treatment received.

"Data were gathered from medically serious attempters because they are a subgroup of suicide attempters who engaged in especially dangerous behavior, suggesting a high intent to die," said Conner. Even if not successful the first time, he said, these individuals have an elevated risk of dying in subsequent attempts," the researchers reported.

Age-Related Patterns

"In most countries, risk for attempted suicide is highest among adolescents and young adults," Conner continued, "whereas the risk for completed suicide is highest among older adults. This study's findings - that alcohol-dependent middle-aged and older adults are at greater risk for suicide than alcohol-dependent young adults - reinforce the notion of different age-related patterns in attempted suicide and completed suicide."

"Little is known about how suicide risk may shift with age," said Paul R. Duberstein, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Laboratory of Personality and Development at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "Too often researchers in this area ignore the role of age, assuming that risk is 'stable' across the life course, as if the risk for suicide in a 25-year-old alcoholic is identical to that in a 65-year-old alcoholic."

Medically Serious Suicide Attempts

The Rochester researchers examined data gathered by Annette L. Beautrais and colleagues for the Canterbury Suicide Project, a case-control study of suicides, medically serious suicide attempts, and randomly selected comparison subjects from the Canterbury region of New Zealand.

All subjects in the study were 18 years of age or older: 193 (149 males, 44 females) had died by committing suicide; 240 (114 males, 126 females) had made a medically serious suicide attempt; and 984 (476 males, 508 females) were controls. Researchers compared demographic and diagnostic variables.

Mood Disorder and Suicide

The study found that the link between alcohol dependence and suicide becomes amplified with age; however, the association between alcohol dependence and medically serious suicide attempts does not increase with age.

Increased age also amplified the association between mood disorders and suicide, while decreased age appeared to strengthen the association between mood disorders and medically serious suicide attempts.

Increased Vulnerability of Older Adults

"This study shows that suicide risk in alcoholics increases with age," said Duberstein. "This study also shows that if you have a mood disorder, such as depression, the likelihood of suicide increases as you get older. I think the authors are absolutely correct in concluding that 'the increased risk for suicide among older adults documented in western cultures may be attributable in large part to the increased vulnerability of older adults to complete suicide in the context of alcohol dependence and mood disorders.'

"Furthermore, the study also challenges the myth that suicide is 'more rationale' in older adults. Of course, there are rational suicides, but they are the exceptions. Most suicides have a diagnosable and treatable mental illness at the time of death."


Conner, KR et al. "Moderators of the Relationship Between Alcohol Dependence and Suicide and Medically Serious Suicide Attempts: Analyses of Canterbury Suicide Project Data." Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research July 2003

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