Are Unrealistic Life Expectations to Blame for Baby Boomer Suicides?

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Recent news has focused attention on suicides in teenagers and children, and while early deaths in this group can be harrowing, the overall rates of suicide in young people are not especially high. Rather, it is the elderly who have historically had the highest rates of self-inflicted death.

Now, new research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in Public Health Reports reveals that for some people, middle-age may be the danger zone. Data show that there were 17.2 suicides per 100,000 45-to-54-year-olds in 2006 and 2007 — up from 15 suicides per 100,000 people in this age group in 2001.

By comparison, in 2001, there were 15 suicides per 100,000 people over 65, and 17.5 suicides per 100,000 people over 85. Among youths, the suicide rate was 10 per 100,000 people in 2001. (More on Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness)

A group of sociologists and public health experts believe that there is a cultural aspect to the spike of suicides in the middle-aged. As CNN reported:

Dashed expectations, economic woes, depression or chronic medical problems — these may be factors why the suicide rates for middle-aged Americans have increased.

Surveys of baby boomers have shown a tone of disappointment.

“So many expected to be in better health and expected to be better off than they are,” said Julie Phillips, lead author of the study assessing recent changes in suicide rates. “Surveys suggest they had high expectations. Things haven’t worked out that way in middle age.”

It must be said that the age range studied represents only a cross section of the baby boomer generation, the oldest members of which are closing in on 65. But the notion that this trend in suicides may be specific to baby boomers rather than to middle-age is an interesting one. (More on Survey: 9% of Americans Are Depressed)

Researchers have also pointed to a host of historical, generation-specific factors: elevated rates of depression among baby boomers in their teenage years, their service in Vietnam, higher rates of drug use.

Medical advances have allowed boomer moms to bear children later and boomers’ parents to survive into their 80s and 90s (though they aren’t protecting 45-to-54 year-olds from developing heart disease or breast, prostate or colon cancers more than others). As a result, boomers are sometimes referred to as the “Sandwich Generation,” because of their unique challenge of simultaneously caring for elderly parents and young (or underemployed) children. Factor in the financial crisis, and it’s no wonder that our beleaguered middle generation is having a hard time. (More on Don’t Choke: 5 Tips for Performing Under Pressure).

While there’s no clear solution, perhaps awareness that this is a common situation among their contemporaries will help some who are struggling. It wouldn’t be the first time that coming together to identify their generational challenges helped baby boomers rise above.