TUESDAY, Oct. 21, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- The suicide rate in the United States is increasing for the first time in a decade, particularly among middle-aged white women, a new study finds.
"This is a group we haven't had as much focus on in terms of suicide, because the death rates were higher in elderly white males, and there has been a lot of attention to teenagers and young adults," said lead researcher Susan P. Baker, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "This 40-to-64 age group has been neglected."
The suicide rate declined over the same period for blacks and remained stable for Asians and Native Americans, the study found.
Baker said it's not clear what might be causing the rising suicide rates among middle-aged whites. "We need to study the individual people who have committed suicide and see what were their living circumstances. Were they depressed, was this impulsive? A lot more specific information is needed," she said.
One possible explanation is that doctors may not be paying enough attention to the mental health of their middle-aged white patients to spot the risk of suicide, Baker said.
The report was published online Oct. 21 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
For the study, Baker and her colleagues used the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System. This site provides information on cause of deaths, broken down by age, race, sex and state. The statistics are culled from annual reports by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.
The researchers found that from 1999 to 2005, the overall suicide rate in the United States rose 0.7 percent. However, among middle-aged white women, the annual increase was 3.9 percent; among middle-aged white men it was 2.7 percent.
The most frequent method of suicide was using a firearm, although the rate of suicide by this method declined. Suicide by hanging and suffocation rose significantly, accounting for 22 percent of all suicides by 2005. Among men, hanging/suffocation rates increased 6.3 percent annually; among women, the yearly rise was 2.3 percent. Poisoning accounted for 18 percent of suicides, the study found.
Alan L. Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, noted that "suicide rates vary, and until you have a clear and dramatic difference, it's awfully hard to know what's going on."
Berman pointed out that the suicide rate among older people is decreasing. "We don't know any more about that than we do about the increase among middle-aged people," he said. "We are always concerned about understanding these kinds of trends, but they need to go on for many years in order to truly define them as something significant and different."
The best explanation, so far, for the increased suicide rate among middle-age men and women is the "baby boomer explanation," Berman said. "You have a very large group of people, and we would expect to see increases in this geriatric group over the next several years," he said.
As for the difference between suicides among whites and blacks, Berman said whites have always had higher suicide rates.
The goal should be to identify and treat people who are suicidal, Berman said. "We need to understand better those who are suicidal, irrespective of age or gender or race. We need to understand and observe warning signs, so that we can find and refer and treat these individuals before they become statistics," he said.
In 2004, suicide was the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 32,439 deaths. There are an estimated eight to 25 attempted suicides for every suicide death, according the National Institute of Mental Health.
For more on suicide, visit the National Institute of Mental Health.