Suicide in Older Adults: Advances and the Role of Technology in Treatment

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Recent updates in suicide prevention interventions for older adults and how a novel tablet application may provide relief to individuals at high risk of suicide.

Suicide in late life constitutes a major public health concern. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the suicide rate for all ages in the United States was 14.5/100,000. Middle-aged and older adults have higher rates of suicide than their younger counterparts (19.41/100,000 for individuals aged 55 to 64), and the highest rate of suicide remains for older males (39.9/100,000 for males aged 75 and older).1 Despite the alarmingly high rates, psychosocial interventions for this population are understudied and urgently needed.

Mobile devices provide a unique and powerful opportunity to deliver interventions to suicidal individuals during periods of increased suicide risk.2 With the current COVID-19 pandemic, reliance on digital health technology is growing, and developing targeted interventions that can be used remotely by older adults during times of emotional crisis is of paramount importance.

Characteristics and Risk Factors

To establish effective psychosocial interventions, risk factors for late-life suicide must be examined. Sociodemographic and clinical factors that are more commonly found in middle-aged and older individuals (eg, widowhood, cognitive decline, etc) play an important role in suicide risk. Understanding the complex interaction of these late-life occurrences can guide efforts in designing preventative interventions.3

Demographic Factors

According to the CDC, middle-aged and older adults account for the highest number of suicides compared to younger populations. In 2018, adults aged 65 and older were reported to make up 16% of the US population, but were responsible for 18.8% of suicides.4 While there are an estimated 25 suicide attempts for every completed suicide in the general population, approximately 1 in 4 suicide attempts results in death for older adults.5 Gender, race, and ethnicity also influence suicide risk and behavior. Women consistently account for a higher number of suicide attempts than men. There are 3 female attempts for each male attempt, yet an estimated 3.6 males die by suicide for every 1 female death. This discrepancy is attributed to the difference in method, because men often use more lethal methods when attempting suicide.6 In comparison to other racial and ethnic groups, non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native and non-Hispanic white people account for the highest rates of suicide at 22.3 and 17.6/100,000, respectively.7

Cognitive Functioning and Physical Illness

As many as 1 in 9 older adults suffer from some form of cognitive impairment.8 Cognitive impairment is often responsible for reducing decision-making capacity and affecting emotion regulation abilities, potentially contributing to suicidal ideation and behavior.9 Discrepancies in literature regarding suicide risk and cognitive impairment suggest that dementia can either be a risk factor or a protective factor depending on the progression and severity of symptoms.10 However, a review on suicide risk and Alzheimer disease found that Alzheimer disease is associated with a moderate suicide risk in older adults, even several years after diagnosis.11

Physical illness and functional disability in late life are also strongly associated with suicide. In a cohort study by Erlangsen and colleagues,12 investigators found that certain cancers and liver disease, specifically, are most closely associated with suicidal outcomes. Despite strong associations found in research, reviewers of the literature advise caution when using physical illness to determine risk, many noting that identifying physical illness does not serve as a predictor for suicide, nor does quantifying the severity of symptoms.13

Psychiatric Illness and Suicidal Behavior

Psychiatric illness is noted in up to 97% of late-life suicides, with major depression cited as the most strongly associated psychiatric disorder.3 Retrospective analysis of psychiatric illness and suicide mortalities in older adults in Denmark highlight recurrent depression as contributing to the highest rate of suicides in adults aged 60 and older, followed closely by other affective disorders and reaction to stress/adjustment disorders. This risk was significantly increased for individuals who were hospitalized for any type of psychiatric disorder, with hospitalized psychiatric illness accounting for 22.3% of male suicides aged 60 and older.14

One of the predictors of suicidal behavior is suicidal ideation, especially active suicidal ideation with intent or plan. However, in older adults who are seeking aging services, even passive suicidal ideation is an indicator of suicide risk.15 Despite the elevated number of late-life suicides, suicidal older adults often go undetected due to lower rates of reporting,16 especially in primary care where older adults most likely seek medical treatment. This information highlights the need for increased identification strategies, as well as enhanced efforts to prevent the onset of suicidal ideation given the high mortality rate in late-life suicide attempters.

Psychosocial Factors

Interpersonal losses including widowhood or death of friends and family are commonplace in advancement of age. The accompanying stress, sense of loneliness, and social disconnection in response to loss is associated with elevated suicide risk, especially within the first year after the death of a close relative.17,18 Passive and active suicidal thoughts are particularly common among older adults in long-term care facilities, and social isolation and loneliness are some of the most frequently reported bases for suicidal thoughts.19 The relationship between perceived social support and psychiatric illness, most notably depression, is strong even when controlling for other factors, such as negative affectivity and overreporting of experiences.20 This points toward a need for more dynamic psychosocial interventions.

Existing Psychosocial Interventions for Suicide Prevention

Current randomized, controlled trials (RCTs) that evaluate psychosocial interventions for older adults are typically developed to address depression or other affective disorders in young adults and are not specifically targeted toward suicidality.21 Of the few published RCTs that measure suicidal ideation as a primary outcome in older adults, the intervention and assessment methods are diverse. Conwell22 investigated the effect of a peer companionship program on socially disconnected older adults, but saw no significant difference in suicidal ideation outcomes between the treatment and control groups. Two studies, conducted by Ecker23 and Kumpula,24 evaluated adaptations of CBT on veterans with suicidal ideation. The first study was a 4-month brief cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the second was CBT for depression compared against 2 other evidence-based psychotherapies. Both authors reported a reduction in suicidal ideation in the CBT/bCBT groups compared to control groups.

Gustavson25 and Lutz26 examined suicidal ideation as a primary outcome in tests of problem-solving therapy in older adult populations. These studies both saw significant reductions in suicidal ideation in the treatment groups; however, 1 study tailored the intervention toward older adults with depression and executive dysfunction, and the other targeted subjects with functional disability, making the interventions difficult to compare.

Kiosses9 investigated the effects of problem adaptation therapy (PATH) on suicidal ideation, an intervention that utilizes emotion-regulation techniques and compensatory strategies in older adults with depression and cognitive impairment. The authors saw a reduction in suicidality in the PATH participants, but the reduction was not significantly different from the supportive therapy control group.

The samples in the aforementioned studies represent specific populations (ie, veterans with medical illness, older adults with functional disabilities), and are not representative of the general older adult population. The heterogeneity of the interventions creates difficulty in both between-study comparisons and generalizability to the general population. Moreover, these studies often exclude those who express active suicidal ideation, leaving out those who are at greater risk of suicide. The results are promising; however, it is important that findings be replicated with larger and more representative samples to more accurately examine the effectiveness and promote generalizability of the interventions.

Role of Technology in Treatment

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated policies have the potential to exacerbate the severity of the previously identified risk factors for suicide in older adults. Social-distancing guidelines, stress, and limited access to health care may contribute to increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, worsening of cognitive and functional abilities, and intensification of symptoms of psychiatric disorders.27 Technology offers the opportunity to alleviate logistical barriers to receiving clinical interventions for older adults who may have difficulty adhering to treatment. As the reliance on telehealth increases, more thorough investigation into remote psychosocial intervention methods targeted specifically for this population is particularly essential.

Literature on the role of technology treatment for suicide prevention in older adults is sparse. Preliminary findings available on feasibility and acceptability of technology-based mobile interventions suggest promising effects of improvement, but further testing is needed.28 In a review of mobile health technology for suicide prevention, one intervention, Virtual Hope Box (VHB), was tested in middle-aged adults. The study recruited both young and middle-aged veterans with a mean age of 46 years old and tested an augmentation of CBT using smartphone capabilities to enhance and personalize the experience with a “hope box.” The study evaluated the effect of the application on intensity of suicidal ideation and importance of reasons for living, but the results yielded no statistically significant treatment effect on these outcomes between the treatment and control groups.29

Our research at the Emotion, Cognition, and Psychotherapy Lab at Weill Cornell Medicine aims to reduce suicide risk by employing a simplified, personalized, and easy-to-use mobile intervention. WellPATH is a tablet application that focuses on emotion regulation strategies (specifically, cognitive reappraisal strategies, which focus on seeing a situation from a different perspective) to reduce negative emotions associated with increased suicide risk. It is a personalized, mainly standalone, mobile intervention that incorporates patient-specific techniques that can be accessed when the patient is faced with negative emotions. The patient and WellPATH interventionist identify situations, problems, or concerns that trigger intense negative emotions that may lead to increased suicidal ideation or behavior and develop personalized cognitive reappraisal strategies to reduce the intense negative emotions.

Preliminary results indicate that patients are able to utilize the user-friendly interface with ease and are highly satisfied with the support provided by WellPATH.30 The WellPATH application takes into consideration characteristics unique to older adults and offers immediate access to an intervention that is easy to use. It addresses the need for a mobile suicide prevention intervention for middle-aged and older adults at high suicide risk, which is particularly germane, given the increased reliance on telehealth.

Concluding Thoughts

The topic of suicide in older adults requires greater consideration. Identification of risk factors is valuable in understanding elder suicidality; however, further attention is encouraged for the development and evaluation of effective interventions tailored to older adults. The few psychosocial interventions mentioned show overall promising results, but unfortunately, there is little available data beyond what has been described. The novel WellPATH tablet application has the opportunity to provide relief to individuals at high risk of suicide by offering an immediate intervention to patients in their actual environment. With the rapid increase in population of middle-aged and older adults, the continued exploration of adaptive preventative interventions is essential for safeguarding the well-being of this increasingly vulnerable population.

Ms Heidenreich is a research assistant in the Weill Cornell Medicine Kiosses Lab. Dr Kiosses is associate professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College; associate attending psychologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital; and primary investigator in the Weill Cornell Medicine Kiosses Lab.

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