While the national conversation about suicide in recent years has focused mostly on teenagers, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that suicide has become the leading cause of death among middle-aged Americans, surpassing the number of deaths caused by car accidents.
The CDC’s latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that in 2010 33,687 Americans ages 35 to 64 died from auto accidents, whereas the number of suicides in that demographic was 38,364. And from 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate of middle-aged U.S. adults increased 28 percent.
Suicide rates among younger and older people remained unchanged in that period.
Though it’s difficult to fully interpret the number of suicides because of variations in the way local officials report causes of death, according to the New York Times, the CDC and academic researchers said they were confident in the study’s findings and that this trend is not an anomaly.
In fact, some experts think the rate of suicide is actually higher than reports suggest.
“It’s vastly underreported,” said Julie Phillips, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has researched and published on the topic of rising suicide rates. “We know we’re not counting all suicides.”
Researchers offer a few explanations on why middle-aged Americans, the baby boomer generation, have seen an increase in suicides, including the economic downturn over the past decade and the increased availability of opioid drugs such as OxyContin and oxycodone.
“There may be something about that group and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference,” Ileana Arias, CDC deputy director, said. “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period.”
The three most common suicide methods for this age group were firearms, poisoning and suffocation.
Other key findings in the report indicate that middle-aged men are more likely than middle-aged women to commit suicide. The suicide rate among men in their 50s jumped nearly 50 percent from 1999 to 2010, while women in their 60s saw the largest suicide rate increase, nearly 60 percent.
The CDC says that these findings underscore the importance of directing more resources and suicide-prevention measures to the middle-aged population.
“Their lives are configured a little differently than it has been in the past for that age group,” said Arias, who also noted that baby boomers cope with the stress of caring for aging parents while providing financial and emotional support to their adult children.
“The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way,” Arias said. “All these conditions the boomers are facing -- future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.”
To find out more about the CDC’s study, click here.