People who have recently been diagnosed with dementia, or who are diagnosed with the condition at a younger age, are among those at increased risk of suicide, researchers have found. The findings have prompted calls for greater support for those experiencing such cognitive decline.
While previous research has explored a potential link between dementia diagnosis and suicide risk, the results have been inconclusive, with some suggesting a raised risk and others a reduced risk.
Now researchers say certain groups of people with dementia are at increased risk of suicide.
“What it tells us is that period immediately after diagnosis is when people really need support from the services that provide the diagnosis,” said Dr Charles Marshall, co-author of the research and a clinical senior lecturer and honorary consultant neurologist at the Wolfson Institute of Population Health at Queen Mary University of London.
Writing in the journal JAMA Neurology, Marshall and colleagues report how they analysed data from people over the age of 15 in England covering the period from 1 January 2001 to 31 December 2019.
The team identified 14,515 people who died by suicide and had health records available. They then matched each with up to 40 living people from the same primary care practice but who may have had a different sex, set of health conditions, or background.
The team found that of the entire cohort of 594,674 individuals, 4,940 had a diagnosis of dementia of which 95 individuals – or about 2% – died by suicide. This rate was similar for those without dementia.
However, after taking into account factors such as age and sex, those who were diagnosed with dementia before the age of 65 were at 2.82 times increased risk of suicide compared with those without the condition. An increased risk of suicide was also seen people in the first three months after diagnosis, and among those who had a psychiatric condition.
In the first three months after being told they had dementia, those diagnosed before the age of 65 had an almost seven times greater risk of suicide compared with those without dementia – although this reduced somewhat over time.
Marshall said it was unclear whether the findings were down to dementia itself causing people to feel suicidal, or factors such as people being concerned they may become a burden to their family.
But, he added: “What I tell people when they’re diagnosed is that it’s possible to find ways of maintaining quality of life that is acceptable to you after a diagnosis of dementia.”
Gavin Terry, head of policy at the Alzheimer’s Society, described the findings as shocking, and called for everyone diagnosed with dementia to have access to a dementia adviser or similar who could connect them with local support services.
“No one should have to face dementia alone. Sadly, three in five people told us they haven’t received enough support from local services after their diagnosis, and just 0.2% of 1m referrals to talking therapy services mentioned a dementia diagnosis in 2018 – so we know people aren’t getting sufficient or timely mental health support,” he said.
October 3, 2022 at 08:52PM Nicola Davis Science correspondent