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Aug 14, 2014 07:31 AM EDT

Poor Sleep Increases Suicide Risk in Older Adults, Study

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Older adults suffering from sleep deprivation are more likely to commit suicide than those with good night's sleep, according to a new study by the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Rebecca Bernert, lead author of the study, said that older adults are associated with higher rates of suicide risk compared to other age groups. As a result, suicide prevention in elderly populations becomes a pressing public health challenge.

"This is important because sleep disturbances are highly treatable, yet arguably less stigmatizing than many other suicide risk factors," said Rebecca Bernert, lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Suicide Prevention Research Laboratory.

For the study, the researchers used data from an epidemiological study of 14,456 adults aged 65 years and older. They compared the sleep quality of 20 who died by suicide with sleep patterns of 400 similar individuals over a 10-year period.

The researchers found that participants with poor sleep quality faced 1.4 times more risk of death by suicide when compared to those without sleep disturbances. "Our findings suggest that poor sleep quality may serve as a stand-alone risk factor for late-life suicide," Bernert said.

The study also found that poor sleep predicted risk better than depressive symptoms. The combination of poor sleep and depressed mood was the strongest predictor of suicide risk.

"Suicide is the outcome of multiple, often interacting biological, psychological and social risk factors," Bernert said. "Disturbed sleep stands apart as a risk factor and warning sign in that it may be undone, which highlights its importance as a screening tool and potential treatment target in suicide prevention.

Bernert said that suicide can be averted. But interventions for suicide prevention are disturbingly limited. The researcher is currently studying the effectiveness of insomnia treatments to prevent depression and suicidal behaviors.

The finding is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

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