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Middle-age whites fuel suicide rate climb

17% rise among group reported

By Rob Waters and Jason Gale
Bloomberg / October 22, 2008
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SAN FRANCISCO - The suicide rate in the United States rose from 1999 to 2005, the first increase after a decline of more than a decade, fueled by a 17 percent rise among middle-age whites, researchers reported yesterday.

Middle-age men continued to kill themselves at a much higher rate than middle-age women, while the rate rose faster in women than men. Rates of suicide declined slightly among blacks and Asians of all ages, as well as among white teens and adults younger than 40. They fell even more in people 65 and older.

Yet the number of white people ages 40 to 64 who took their own lives increased, to 17.5 for every 1,000 people in 2005 from 14.9 per 1,000 in 1999. The numbers surprised Susan Baker, a professor at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who said in a telephone interview that she was worried "the trend may continue or get worse."

"I don't know what's going on with this age group," said Baker, who led the analysis, which was published yesterday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. "With the present economic crisis, I'm concerned we may be heading into a period where it's especially important for primary care physicians to pay attention to people in this age group."

Before 1999, the US suicide rate had declined for 13 years. The new numbers are especially puzzling because other research has found that for most people, middle age "is a time of relative security and emotional well-being," Baker and her colleagues wrote in their paper. Their analysis was based on death reports compiled by an injury prevention program of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even six years of consistent increase in the suicide rate among the middle-aged is "not a long enough period of time to get terribly concerned about," said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C. He said there was no clear reason the suicide rate rose among the middle-aged. Still, Berman said he fears the struggling economy could accelerate the trend.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News's parent Bloomberg LP, is an alumnus and benefactor of the Johns Hopkins University, and Bloomberg School of Public Health is named in his honor.

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