Middle Aged Americans Happy and Suicidal

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Researchers have reported that Americans in midlife are a remarkably contented and that they also have the highest rate of suicide. A new study of a Gallup telephone poll took a “snapshot” of how more than 340,000 respondents felt on a particular day in 2008 found that starting at age 50; there was a sharp rise in the level of happiness that people reported.

“From many points of view, midlife permits many of us to feel on top of the world, in control of our lives, and well enough pleased with what we have accomplished to seek new outlets of both self-expression and giving back to society some of what we have earned and learned,” the study reported.

The researchers concluded that while stresses about money and children are at a peak, so are competence and a sense of mastery.

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Dr. LaVonne Ortega, a medical epidemiologist at the C.D.C. stated that the most common risk factors for suicide are mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and the loss of a job or partner. A sickly economy has been associated with a rise in suicide, although these most recent figures, from 2006 and 2007, are from before the depth of the recession.

There has, however, been a very large increase in the use of prescription opioid painkillers like oxycodone in the past 15 years, caused by a shift toward more aggressive pain management. This large upswing is linked to a jump in accidental drug overdoses, particularly among 45- to 54-year-olds. The increased drug use might be related to suicide rates, Dr. Ortega said. Given that suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have been rising for five years, Dr. Ortega said, “we anticipate that the trend might continue.”

Myrna Weissman, an epidemiologist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute offers a different theory. “That’s a cohort that came to maturity when there were great social changes, more instability, more divorce and separation, more moves, an increase in drug use, and war.” As for those happy midlifers? “They’re different people,” she said with a laugh, “less vulnerable and subjected less to these adverse life effects.”

Dr. Robert M. Bossarte, a colleague at the medical center, is skeptical about the boomer theory. He stated he thinks that there may be some kind of transition that middle-aged people are experiencing that researchers have not yet picked up on. “I don’t think it is likely that this population has some unique risk factor,” he said.

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