After nights spent tossing and turning, I’m grumpy. The world becomes darker, slower and smaller.
That’s why I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that sleep-deprived older adults are more likely to kill themselves, the results of a study published Aug. 13 in JAMA Psychiatry. Lead author Rebecca Bernert, PhD, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral science and her team examined data from a pool of 14,456 adults older than 65 between 1981 and 1991. They then probed the sleep patterns of 20 people who died by suicide with those of 400 similar individuals.
They found that participants with impaired sleep had a 1.4 percent greater chance of death by suicide than participants who slept well. “This is important because sleep disturbances are highly treatable and arguably less stigmatizing than other suicide risk factors,” Bernert commented in a press release.
Bernert and her team plan to work to develop potential interventions through two ongoing clinical trials.
What did surprise me about the findings was the prevalence of suicide deaths in older adults, particularly among older men: In fact, white men over 65 have a rate of 31 deaths by suicide per 100,000, much higher than the general population rate of 13 or so per 100,000.
Regardless, any number of suicides is too high, a belief Bernert reiterates emphatically.
“Suicide is preventable,” Bernert said. “But the interventions for suicide prevention are alarmingly scarce.”
That’s why for Bernert, the suicide net recently approved for the Golden Gate Bridge is a no-brainer. She recently joined the board of directors of the Bridge Rail Foundation, the nonprofit formed to advocate for the net. “This is a very effective way to prevent suicides,” she said.
More than 1,600 people have died by suicide at the bridge; a similar number of deaths due to any other reason would have necessitated public intervention decades ago, she said. She attributed the delay, in part, to the powerful stigma that surrounds suicide.
Bernert urged others to learn about suicide by visiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or, if in crisis, to call 1-800-273-TALK to reach a 24-hour help line.
Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing, exploring, or practicing yoga. She’s currently a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.
Previously: Stanford’s Keith Humphreys on Golden Gate Bridge suicide prevention: Get the nets, CDC report highlights the dangers of sleep deprivation and Sleep deprivation may increase young adults’ risk of mental distress, obesity
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