Older persons who have sleep problems are more likely to commit suicide than well-rested adults according to a study by a Stanford University School of Medicine researcher.
“This is important because sleep disturbances are highly treatable, yet arguably less stigmatizing than many other suicide risk factors,” said Rebecca Bernert, PhD, lead author of the study. Bernert is a psychiatry and behavioural sciences instructor at Stanford and the director of the Suicide Prevention Research Laboratory.
Suicide prevention among the elderly — an urgent public health concern
According to Bernert, older persons have a disproportionately higher risk of suicide than other age groups, making suicide prevention in the elderly an urgent public health concern. Bernert and her colleagues compared the sleep patterns of 20 suicide victims to the sleep patterns of 400 comparable individuals over a 10-year period using data from an epidemiological study of 14,456 adults aged 65 and older. They discovered that participants who reported sleeping poorly had a 1.4 times higher likelihood of dying by suicide during a 10-year period than participants who reported sleeping well.
Poor sleep most powerful predictor of suicide risk
The study validated the link between depression and suicide risk while also identifying inadequate sleep as an independent risk factor. “Our findings suggest that poor sleep quality may serve as a stand-alone risk factor for late-life suicide,” Bernert explained. Surprisingly, when the two risk factors were compared, the study discovered that poor sleep predicted risk better than depressed symptoms. Poor sleep combined with a gloomy mood was the most powerful predictor of suicide risk.
Interventions of suicide prevention are scarce
“Suicide is the result of numerous, frequently interacting biological, psychological, and social risk factors,” Bernert explained. “Disturbed sleep distinguishes itself as a risk factor and warning sign in that it can be undone, emphasizing its importance as a screening tool and potential treatment target in suicide prevention.” “Suicide can be avoided,” she continued. “Yet, interventions for suicide prevention are alarmingly scarce.” Bernert is now conducting two studies to determine the efficacy of insomnia medication in preventing depression and suicidal behaviour. Most the study’s suicide decedents were white men, reflecting a group at higher risk of suicide in the general population, according to Bernert, who added that more research is needed to see if the link between disturbed sleep and suicide risk extends to women, minorities, and younger adults or teenagers.
Materials provided by Stanford University Medical Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Rebecca A. Bernert, Carolyn L. Turvey, Yeates Conwell, Thomas E. Joiner. Association of Poor Subjective Sleep Quality With Risk for Death by Suicide During a 10-Year Period. JAMA Psychiatry, 2014; DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.1126
Stanford University Medical Center. “Poor sleep quality increases suicide risk for older adults, researcher finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 August 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140813174422.htm>.
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