By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The suicide rate among Americans aged 35 to 64 rose sharply between 1999 and 2010, a trend that could reflect the stresses of a sharp economic downturn as well as other traditionally overlooked challenges of middle age, according to a federal report released on Thursday.
The annual rate of suicide rose 28 percent among Americans aged 35 to 64 during the study period, but changed little for older and younger people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The number of suicides among people in their 50s doubled in that time frame.
"Traditionally, we focus suicide prevention on adolescents and the older retired population, but the results of this study really emphasized the public health burden faced by the middle aged population," said Dr. Thomas Simon, a researcher with the CDC's Injury Center.
"There are unique risks at each developmental stage," said Simon, pointing to bullying and confusion about sexuality in teenagers and getting used to retirement for seniors. "And then there are some particularly salient challenges for the middle-aged group: divorce, job loss, and dual care-giving."
The increase in the U.S. over the past two decades may also reflect the influence of the weak economy - suicides generally rise during downturns - and an increase in the use of prescription opioid painkiller drugs, the CDC said.
The U.S. economy twice went into recession during the study period, briefly in 2001 and sharply during the so-called Great Recession of December 2007-June 2009 that sent the unemployment rate as high as 10 percent.
The pressures of the downturn took a heavy toll on the middle-aged, some of whom had to care for both children and aging parents, as well as deal with their own health problems, the study found.
Simon said that more research is needed to determine whether suicide rates among middle aged people will fall if the economy improves or demographic shifts eventually alleviate the dual childcare and elder-care burdens faced by the so-called "sandwich generation."
The U.S. had an overall suicide rate of 12.4 for every 100,000 in 2010, according to CDC data. By comparison, the average for European Union countries was 10.2 per 100,000 inhabitants. Lithuania had the highest rate, with 29.4 suicides per 100,000 and Cyprus, Italy, Greece and Spain all had fewer than 6 suicides per 100,000 in 2010, according to Eurostat.
In the study, the CDC warned that the actual toll from suicide may be higher than it appears, as some possible suicides are classified as undetermined in the National Vital Statistics System, which provided the data on which the study was based.
The report drew attention to especially high increases of suicide among Native Americans, for whom the rate rose by 65 percent overall - 60 percent among men and more than 81 percent among women. The suicide rate rose 40 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
The most common ways people killed themselves were by using firearms, poison - often by overdosing on drugs - and suffocation, typically by hanging, a method for which the suicide rate increased by 81 percent between 1999 and 2010.
In 2010, there were 33,687 U.S. deaths from motor vehicle crashes, compared to 38,364 suicides, according to the CDC.
(Reporting by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian; Editing by Scott Malone, Lisa Von Ahn and Chris Reese)