Tony Scott’s Death a Reminder of the Quiet Scourge of Elderly Suicide

Director Tony Scott, 68, who jumped to his death Sunday, was in the No. 1 risk group for suicide among the elderly. Eliza Shapiro reports.

08.20.12 11:33 PM ET

When director Tony Scott leaped off the Vincent Thomas Bridge to his death on Sunday afternoon, he became part of a large yet relatively unknown group of white men over the age of 65 who have taken their own lives.

Scott, 68, also appears to have joined the ranks of other famous—and in some cases infamous—men who killed themselves after learning of a terminal or incurable illness, including Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson. ABC News reported Monday morning that Scott had inoperable brain cancer. TMZ reported later in the day that Scott was not suffering from cancer, but his family has not confirmed whether he had a terminal illness.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, the elderly account for 12.5 percent of the total population but in 2009 accounted for 15.7 percent of all the suicides committed in the United States, the most recent year data were gathered. White men over 65 were at the highest risk for suicide, with a rate of about 31 suicides a year per 100,000 people. Almost 85 percent of elderly suicides in 2009 were male. That year, 5,858 Americans over 65 committed suicide.

While elderly suicide has “always been a significant issue, rates among the elderly have come down in recent years,” says Dr. Lanny Berman, the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “It doesn’t get a lot of attention because of ageism. People aren’t as concerned with elderly suicide as they are with youthful suicide.”

While a great deal of money and research is dedicated to discovering the causes of suicide in teenagers and young adults, for example, significantly less funding is aimed at the study and prevention of elderly suicides, Berman says.

Older adults commit suicide for a variety of reasons, including learning of an incurable illness, says John Santos, an emeritus professor of psychology at Notre Dame specializing in geriatric psychology.

Generally, elderly people are at high risk for feelings of depression and hopelessness. “You lose your cohort,” Santos says. “All the people that you know are gone. When you look outside it’s not encouraging, and when you look inside it’s not encouraging.”

Still, says Dr. John McIntosh, a professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend, there has been “a tremendous decline over a long period of time of older adult suicide.” McIntosh says this statistic “could very well say that being an older adult now has produced less stress or at least fewer suicides than it has in the past.”

The stigmatized legacy of assisted suicide also may be a factor in the decline of geriatric suicides. Throughout the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian, nicknamed “Dr. Death,” performed more than 130 assisted suicides, many of which involved patients with terminal illnesses. He served eight years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder for giving a 52-year-old terminally ill man named Thomas Youk a lethal injection. Kevorkian died in 2011 at 83.

McIntosh says that while suicides among the elderly have decreased, suicides among middle-aged Americans have gone up steadily since 2000. Adults between 45 and 54 now commit suicide at a rate of 19.3 per 100,000 people, compared to 14.2 in 1999. “The rate for middle-age suicides is slightly higher now for the first time in our history,” McIntosh says.

Yet suicide among Americans over 65 persists. Classic warning signs of older adults contemplating suicide include their making seemingly premature arrangements for belongings or expressing indifference when their health deteriorates dramatically, Santos says.

When someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he adds, “you’re not really in control of your own life.”