Researchers have found that people who have recently been diagnosed with dementia or who are diagnosed with the disease at a younger age are at increased risk of suicide. The findings have sparked calls for more support for those experiencing such cognitive decline.
While previous studies have investigated the potential link between a dementia diagnosis and suicide risk, the results have been inconclusive, with some suggesting an increased risk and others a decreased risk.
Now researchers say that certain groups of people with dementia are at increased risk of suicide.
“This suggests that immediately after diagnosis, people really need support from the services that make the diagnosis,” said Dr. Charles Marshall, study co-author and senior lecturer and honorary consultant neurologist at the Wolfson Institute. of Health at Queen Mary University of London.
Writing in the journal JAMA Neurology, Marshall and colleagues report how they analyzed data from people over the age of 15 in England between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2019.
The team identified 14,515 people who committed suicide and had medical records. They then matched each of up to 40 living people from the same primary care practice, but who may have different genders, health conditions or backgrounds.
The team found that of the entire cohort of 594,674 people, 4,940 were diagnosed with dementia, of which 95 people – or about 2% – committed suicide. This rate was similar for people without dementia.
However, after adjusting for factors such as age and gender, those who were diagnosed with dementia before age 65 had a 2.82 times greater risk of suicide compared to those without the condition. An increased risk of suicide was also seen in people in the first three months after diagnosis, and among those with a history of mental illness.
In the first three months after they were told they had dementia, those diagnosed before the age of 65 were almost seven times more likely to commit suicide compared to people without dementia – although over time this somewhat decreased.
Marshall said it was unclear whether the findings were related to dementia itself, which makes people feel suicidal, or to factors such as people’s concern that they could become a burden on their families.
But he added: “What I tell people when they are diagnosed is that there are ways to maintain a quality of life that is acceptable to you after a dementia diagnosis.”
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 consultant or similar who can connect them with local support services.
“No one should have to face dementia alone. Sadly, three in five people told us they didn’t get enough support from local services after being diagnosed, and only 0.2% of the 1 million calls to talking therapy services in 2018 mentioned a dementia diagnosis – so we know people do not receive sufficient or timely mental health support,” he said.