Understanding Recent Changes in Suicide Rates Among the Middle-Aged

Julie Phillips, Ph.D.

Julie Phillips, Ph.D.

While suicide is relatively uncommon, the suicide rate for middle aged white men has gone up since 1979, and the same is true for middle aged white women since 2000. Is it something about “baby boomers,” middle age or both? It turns out that this group of “baby boomers” has had higher rates of suicide across their lives. Being unmarried and not having a college degree added risk. According to Dr. Julie Phillips, this group of middle-aged adults is different from earlier groups.

Dr. Phillips examined suicide trends from 1979-1999 and 2000-2005 and compared rates to middle agers in the 1970s and 1980s. She used death certificates and census data to examine suicide rates for middle aged men and women through the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, suicide rates for middle aged people were declining (although still higher than rates when they were younger). First, rates dropped for middle-aged women, and later for middle aged men. In 1979 the rates started climbing—men first, then women. The increase was observed only for whites and not for any other races.

It turns out that “baby boomers” have had higher rates of suicide across their lifespan when compared to groups as far back as 1935. By looking at both death certificates and census data, Dr. Phillips could test for other factors besides birth group (also known as a cohort) that have affected suicide rates for the current middle aged group. She found that rates were higher for unmarried men and women as well as for married women between the ages of 40-49. This showed that there were separate effects for age and for marital status. For all current middle agers, education was also related to suicide rates with rates highest for those who had a high school diploma or less.

Middle age is a time of increased rates of suicide for everyone but especially for those in the current group. This cohort has experienced increased rates of depression and anxiety, increasing economic strain and more chronic illness, all of which can contribute to suicide risk. Knowing this affords us the opportunity to develop interventions such as raising awareness of effective treatment options and educating physicians on mental health risks associated with chronic illness.

Julie Phillips, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging at Rutgers University. She was awarded an AFSP Pilot Research Grant entitled, “Factors Associated with Temporal and Spatial Variation of Suicide Rates,” in 2007.

Published articles from this study:

  • Phillips, J. A. (2013). Factors associated with temporal and spatial patterns in suicide rates across U.S. states, 1976-2000. Demography, 50(2), 591-614.
  • Phillips, J. A., Robin, A. V., Nugent, C. N., & Idler, E. L. (2010). Understanding recent changes in suicide rates among the middle-aged: period or cohort effects? Public Health Reports, 125(5), 680-688.