The CDC reports that suicide rates are up significantly for the 45-54 population. See Midlife Suicide Rises, Puzzling Researchers in the New York Times. Could this group’s success in reducing cholesterol levels have something to do with it?
A new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group.
The lack of concrete research has given rise to all kinds of theories, including a sudden drop in the use of hormone-replacement therapy by menopausal women after health warnings in 2002, higher rates of depression among baby boomers or a simple statistical fluke.
At the moment, the prime suspect is the skyrocketing use –and abuse– of prescription drugs. During the same five-year period included in the study, there was a staggering increase in the total number of drug overdoses, both intentional and accidental, like the one that recently killed the 28-year-old actor Heath Ledger. Illicit drugs also increase risky behaviors, C.D.C. officials point out, noting that usersâ€™ rates of suicide can be 15 to 25 times as great as the general population.
Jeffrey Smith, a vigorous fisherman and hunter, began ordering prescription drugs like Ambien and Viagra over the Internet when he was in his late 40s and the prospect of growing older began to gnaw at him, said his daughter, Michelle Ray Smith, who appears on the television soap “Guiding Light.” Five days before his 50th birthday, he sat in his S.U.V. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., letting carbon monoxide fill his car.
When the first papers to document the efficacy of anti-cholesterol medications came out, it was surprising to discover that the studies being cited for benefits in reducing heart disease also showed an increase in total deaths. The deaths were from diverse causes, including car accidents and suicides. It later turned out that many of these medications interfered with sleep, perhaps explaining the car accidents. I wonder if there is also an effect to make suicide more likely. The timing fits well with the increase in suicides described in this article.
Subsequent studies have shown some linkage between low and declining cholesterol levels and suicide. For example, see Serum cholesterol concentration and death from suicide in men: Paris prospective study I in the BMJ.
This is highly speculative but as long as we’re looking for suspects (beyond “a simple statistical fluke”) it’s probably worth looking into.February 19, 2008