The suicide risk in people under age 65 within the first three months after a diagnosis of dementia is nearly seven times higher than in people without dementia.
A devastating medical diagnosis can turn someone's world upside down. When that diagnosis is dementia and it happens prematurely, people's thoughts may turn to suicide, according to a study published in JAMA Neurology.
Although the researchers didn't see an overall link between dementia and suicide risk, they did find a threefold increased risk of suicide in people who were diagnosed before age 65 — a less common form of the disease that doctors call early-onset dementia.
A famous case is actor and comedian Robin Williams, who committed suicide at the age of 63. An autopsy suggested he had suffered from dementia.
Early dementia and suicide risk
British researchers discovered the increased risk after looking at the health records of almost 595,000 people from 2001 through 2019. Among the 14,515 people in the study who died by suicide, nearly 2 percent had a recorded diagnosis of dementia.
The first few months after a diagnosis seem to be the most critical time for contemplating suicide. In the study, the suicide risk in people under age 65 within the first three months was nearly seven times higher than it was in people without dementia.
This isn't the first research to draw a connection between dementia and suicide soon after diagnosis. An earlier report in Alzheimer's & Dementia also found a higher risk for suicide among people who'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia in the first three months after they received the news, although they were older (65 to 74).
The authors of the JAMA Neurology study recommend that doctors assess people with dementia who are at high risk for suicide and offer them preventive care.
How a dementia diagnosis leads to suicidal thoughts
It's not hard to see how being diagnosed with an incurable disease like dementia could make someone contemplate suicide. Yet suicide is already a bigger problem in older adults. When older adults attempt suicide, they're more likely to succeed than are younger people.
Some reasons why people are more likely to contemplate suicide as they age include:
- They have more chronic and painful illnesses like arthritis and cancer.
- They've lost their partner, friends, and other loved ones.
- They lack social connections.
- They've lost the sense of purpose or meaning to their lives.
- They have depression.
Dementia only adds to these existing stressors. It affects parts of the brain that are involved in thinking and decision-making. The loss of these mental functions makes it harder to cope with life's problems and leads people to make impulsive decisions.
Once dementia progresses to a later stage when people have lost more cognitive function, the risk for suicide drops significantly. This is likely because the loss of thinking ability makes it harder to make plans and carry them out.
What you can do
A dementia diagnosis can trigger many emotions, from fear and worry to anger. Make sure you get the help you need to cope. Your loved ones may need help processing your diagnosis, too.
You might start by having a conversation with your primary care doctor, who can refer you to a counselor, therapist, or another mental health professional. An organization like the Alzheimer's Association is another good place to turn for advice and support.
Social support is also essential for people who are grappling with a new dementia diagnosis. That support can come from friends and family, Alzheimer's disease and dementia support groups, and community programs for seniors.
While there isn't a cure for Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia, treatments are improving. A few medications reduce symptoms and help people preserve their quality of life for longer. New therapies in the pipeline could soon improve the outlook even more for people who are living with or are at risk for this condition.
Until then, it's important to watch for signs of suicidal thinking in someone who has recently been diagnosed with dementia, especially if they are younger than 65. Those signs include:
- Pulling away from friends and family
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Using words like "hopeless" or "useless" to describe themselves
- Talking about dying or ending things
- Giving away their personal possessions
- Seeking ways to die, including buying a gun
If you or a loved one is in imminent danger of attempting suicide, call the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. This free and confidential service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
February 17, 2023
Janet O'Dell, RN