People with a recent diagnosis of dementia – including adults under the age of 65 – may have an increased risk of suicide, according to new research published in the journal JAMA Neurology.
The researchers analyzed nearly 600,000 people from England for 18 years and found that adults who were diagnosed with dementia before the age of 65 had a 2.82 times higher risk of suicide compared to patients without the condition.
Furthermore, during the first three months of a dementia diagnosis, those under age 65 were 6.69 times more likely to die by suicide compared to people without dementia. Patients who already had a psychiatric condition or were younger than 65 at the time of diagnosis had a similar risk.
The authors noted that the findings from the study should target suicide risk assessment in patients with young-onset dementia, patients in the first few months after a dementia diagnosis and patients with known psychiatric problems.
“Improving access to a dementia diagnosis is an important health care priority. However, a dementia diagnosis can be devastating, and our work shows that we also need to ensure that services have the resources to provide appropriate support after a diagnosis is given,” Charles Marshall, MRCP, PhD, senior author and honorary consultant neurologist at the Wolfson Institute of Population Health at Queen Mary, said in a press release.
While previous research – including a 2021 study by scientists from Yale University – has found links between dementia and suicide risk and focuses on older adults with chronic conditions, experts say this is one of the few studies that shed light on younger and middle-aged adults.
“This is the first national study of suicide risk within the first 12 months of dementia diagnosis,” Jeff Temple, PhD, a licensed psychologist at UTMB’s Center for Violence Prevention (who was not involved in the study), told Seasons. “This is important because it overcomes many of the limitations of previous studies that used local samples, which limits generalizability. The large sample also allowed the researchers to examine specific predictors of suicide risk.”
Why suicide risk may be higher in younger adults after a dementia diagnosis
Getting a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, especially at an early age, can be scary, unexpected, overwhelming and confusing, Temple said. Some people may have difficulty accepting their diagnosis, which can often result in feelings of loss, anger and grief.
“Essentially when you’re diagnosed with dementia, you are forced to think about your own mortality,” he said. “That itself is depressing and may lead to additional symptoms that we know are associated with suicidality like depression, anxiety and drinking more.”
Furthermore, Temple said that patients with a dementia diagnosis may feel like they are being a burden to their family members, which can lead to thoughts of suicide. Based on findings from this study, he added that caregivers should be more attentive to their loved one.
“Caregivers should be especially on guard, care for, and screen for suicidal thoughts within the first 90 days of a diagnosis, as that is when half of the post-diagnosis suicides occurred,” he said. “This study also revealed that younger males, people with particular kinds of dementia and prior history of mental health and substance use disorders are more at risk.”
Warning signs and behaviors of suicide to look out for in adults
Here are some suicidal signs and behaviors caregivers can look out for in their loved ones:
- Increased substance use or abuse
- Lack of interest in doing things the person used to enjoy
- Expression of sadness, depression or hopelessness
- Talking about death
- Social isolation from others
- Mood swings
- Giving away personal possessions or making a will
- Access to lethal means of suicide, including medications, guns or knives
- Previous suicide attempt
How you can support a loved one after a dementia diagnosis
Beyond understanding potential signs and behaviors of suicide, Temple said there are other ways caregivers can support their loved ones after receiving a diagnosis of dementia. These include:
- Remind your loved one they are not alone and that you support and care about them
- Don’t be judgmental, criticize them or blame them for what might be happening to them
- Encourage them to seek help from a doctor, geriatric specialist, psychologist or counselor, if they are comfortable with it
- Plan routine screenings with a health care specialist or provider
- Consult other support services and resources from organizations like the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
“Screening should be routine and occur at every appointment, and therapy should be prophylactically applied universally so that every adult diagnosed with dementia is encouraged to and freely offered therapy to help them grieve and manage this new diagnosis,” Temple said.