A new study shows higher rates of suicide among middle age adults in recent years. CNN reports:

In the last 11 years, as more baby boomers entered midlife, the suicide rates in this age group have increased, according to an analysis in the September-October issue of the journal Public Health Reports.

The assumption was that “middle age was the most stable time of your life because you’re married, you’re settled, you had a job. Suicide rates are stable because their lives are stable,” said Dr. Paula Clayton, the medical director for the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide.

But this assumption may be shifting.

A sociologist explains:

“So many expected to be in better health and expected to be better off than they are,” said Julie Phillips, lead author of the study assessing recent changes in suicide rates. “Surveys suggest they had high expectations. Things haven’t worked out that way in middle age.”


Baby boomers (defined in the study as born between 1945 and 1964) are in a peculiar predicament.

“Historically, the elderly have had the highest rates of suicide,” said Phillips, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University. “What is so striking about these figures is that starting in 2005, suicide rates among the middle aged [45-64 years of age] are the highest of all age groups.”

The 45-54 age group had the highest suicide rate in 2006 and 2007, with 17.2 per 100,000. Meanwhile, suicide rates in adolescents and the elderly have begun to decline, she said.

“What’s notable here is that the recent trend among boomers is opposite to what we see among other cohorts and that it’s a reversal of a decades-long trend among the middle-aged,” said Phillips, who along with Ellen Idler, a sociologist at Emory University, and two other authors used data from the National Vital Statistics System.

Several theories have been proposed to explain this trend, including higher suicide rates among boomers during adolescence.

Baby boomers had higher rates of depression during their adolescence. One theory is that as they aged, this disposition followed them through the course of their lives.

“The age group as teenagers, it was identified they had higher rates of depression than people born 10 or 20 years earlier — it’s called a cohort effect,” said Clayton, from the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide, who read the study.

Others cite health concerns:

Some say health problems could be a factor in increased suicide rates among baby boomers.

Boomers have their share of medical problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and complications of obesity.

“There’s a rise of chronic health conditions among the middle aged,” Phillips said. “In the time period from 1996 to 2006, we see fairly dramatic chronic health conditions and an increase in out-of-pocket expenditures.”

Some speculate that the increase in baby boomer suicides could be attributed to stress, the number of Vietnam veterans in the age group or drug use, which was higher in that generation. Boomers are also the “sandwich generation,” pressed between needs of their children and their aging parents who are living longer, but have health problems like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Finally, economic woes may be to blame.

All this is unfolding in a lagging economy, meaning boomers could be affected by the “period effect.”

“One hypothesis is that the economic pressure during this period might be a driving force, with the recession in the early 2000s — loss of jobs, instability, increases in bankruptcy rates among middle age,” Phillips said.

Unemployment correlates with increased rates of suicide. People who are unmarried and have less education are also more at risk.

First Self Portrait
Contrary to more pessimistic societal assumptions, research has shown that old age often correlates with increased happiness. A recent Washington Post story reports on studies that seek to explain this trend.

One factor that may lead to increased happiness is the emotional and cognitive stability that grows with old age.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the “well-being paradox.” Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

Wisdom, while long associated with age, has always remained a murky term. Ipsit Vahia, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego, explains

“[wisdom] involves making decisions that would be to the greater benefit of a larger number of people” and maintaining “an element of pragmatism, not pure idealism. And it would involve some sense of reflection and self-understanding.”

The source of this wisdom and happiness remains subject to debate. Some emphasize neurobiological changes.

An MRI scan cannot isolate a part of the brain associated with wisdom, says Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist and author of “The Wisdom Paradox.” Still, he says, the aging brain has a greater sense of “pattern recognition,” the ability to capture a range of similar but nonidentical information, then extract and piece together common features. That, Goldberg says, “gives some old people a cognitive leg up.”

While others attribute the change to social and emotional factors such as the ability to regulate emotions. Psychologist Susanne Scheibbe cites a pragmatic basis for cognitive change.

“Old people are good at shaping everyday life to suit their needs,” explains Scheibe. By carefully pruning their social networks or looking at life in relative terms, older adults maintain cognitive control. And although multiple chronic illnesses that cause functional disability or cognitive decline can affect well-being, most older adults are able to tune out negative information into their late 70s and 80s.

So perhaps there is something to that whole ‘respect your elders’ thing. Or as the Washington Post story concludes

If older adults are predisposed to wisdom, perhaps a graying population means a wiser one.

Girl in DespairAccording to the Washington Post, recent research on social networks has shown that loneliness can be contagious.

Although it may sound counterintuitive, loneliness can spread from one person to another, according to research being released Tuesday that underscores the power of one person’s emotions to affect friends, family and neighbors.

The federally funded analysis of data collected from more than 4,000 people over 10 years found that lonely people increase the chances that someone they know will start to feel alone, and that the solitary feeling can spread one more degree of separation, causing a friend of a friend or even the sibling of a friend to feel desolate.


The researchers used information gathered from the participants over decades, including their friendships, identities of their neighbors, co-workers and family members, and information about their emotional state. Previous studies by Christakis and Fowler concluded that obesity, the likelihood of quitting smoking, and even happiness could spread from one person to another.

Similarly, the new analysis, involving 4,793 people who were interviewed every two years between 1991 and 2001, showed that having a social connection to a lonely person increased the chances of developing feelings of loneliness. A friend of a lonely person was 52 percent more likely to develop feelings of loneliness by the time of the next interview, the analysis showed. A friend of that person was 25 percent more likely, and a friend of a friend of a friend was 15 percent more likely.

According to sociologists, these results demonstrate that even individuals’ emotions have social significance:

“No man is an island,” said Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School who helped conduct the research. “Something so personal as a person’s emotions can have a collective existence and affect the vast fabric of humanity.”


The researchers said the effect could not be the result of lonely people being more likely to associate with other lonely people because they showed the effect over time. “It’s not a birds-of-a-feather-flock-together effect,” Christakis said.

The findings underscore the importance of social networks, several experts said.

“For years, physicians and researchers thought about individuals as isolated creatures,” said Stanley Wasserman, who studies social networks at Indiana University. “We now know that the people you surround yourself with can have a tremendous impact on your well-being, whether it’s physical or psychological.”

The findings suggest that if you help “the people on the margins of the network, you help not only them but help stabilize the whole network ,” Christakis said.

This morning USA Today ran a story about new research soon to be published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology debunking some popular myths about suicide.

USA Today reports:

Common beliefs about suicide being more likely on Mondays and during the winter aren’t really true, according to new research from the University of California, Riverside — summer is the most common season and Wednesday the most likely day. [The study is co-authored by sociology professor Augustine Kposowa.]

July and August are the most common months for suicide, followed by April and May, finds the analysis… The researchers found that 24.6% of suicides were on Wednesdays, with Thursdays the least likely day at just 11.1%.

Kposowa elaborates:

Kposowa says the common wisdom used to be that suicides were more likely on Mondays because the weekend had ended; however, he says Wednesday is right in the middle of the work week when stress is highest and the weekend is still farther away.

“Thursday is lowest because usually people are in better moods because the weekend is near,” he says.

He also says the folklore about more suicides in winter never really was true because much past research has shown that suicide was more likely in the spring.

Read more.

88/365 - take two aspirin and call me when you can see againYesterday USA Today reported on how executives who carry out layoffs are suffering too. They now report numerous symptoms including stress, poor sleep, and other problems with their physical health. The paper reports, “About 3 million Americans have been laid off since the recession began 16 months ago, the government says. In every instance, someone decided the worker had to go, and someone delivered the bad news.”

Of course these people can’t expect much sympathy from the laid off employees, but at least we can call upon a sociologist to explain the trend…

Managers involved with layoffs at one large company were more prone than other executives to have sleep problems, ulcers, headaches and even heart trouble up to three years after the layoffs, says Leon Grunberg, a sociologist at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. They also had more job stress and depression. Grunberg led the only long-term study of how such bosses fare, following 410 managers over 10 years, until 2006.

In interviews, managers called the layoffs “gut-wrenching” and “devastating,” Grunberg says.

Something changes

In his study, the managers had mostly regained emotional health up to six years after the layoffs. But they still were more likely than other bosses to have stress-related health problems, such as ulcers and heart trouble, he says. “It seemed to change their image of the company dramatically. One said, ‘It’s almost a falling-out-of-love feeling.’ “

Read more.

The road doesn't end, it only turns.Newswise (a press release service) highlighted a recent study out of the University of Chicago, which suggests that “not having many close friends contributes to poorer health for older adults, those who also feel lonely face even greater health risks and that older people who are able to adjust to being alone don’t have the same health problems.”

The study is the first to examine the relationships between health and two different types of isolation. Researchers measured the degree to which older adults are socially connected and socially active. They also assessed whether older adults feel lonely and whether they expect that friends and family would help them in times of need.

“Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health, regardless of whether it prompts feelings of loneliness or a perceived lack of social support,” said study co-author Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on aging.

However, the researchers found a different relationship between social isolation and mental health. “The relationship between social disconnectedness and mental health appears to operate through feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support,” Waite explained.

Older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. The consequences of poor mental health can be substantial, as deteriorating mental health also reduces people’s willingness to exercise and may increase health-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol use, Waite explained.

Read more.

want to be part of the team?
The Irish Times reports today on a new study from Dublin University sociologist
Majella McSharry about the potential influence of friends and siblings on body image.

The Irish Times reports:

FRIENDS AND siblings have a far greater influence on how teenagers perceive their body shape than celebrity magazines, according to new research to be published later this week. It also highlights the prevalence of undiagnosed eating disorders.

Sociologist Dr Majella McSharry said the popular press validated the “aesthetic-athletic” body, but it was peers who really determined how teens saw themselves.

About the methods:

She polled 242 students across five second-level schools around Dublin, then conducted in-depth interviews with 30 of them about body image.

“I went out like everybody else thinking that they are going to talk about the media and they did, ultimately that was where they got these ideal images from,” she said. “But where they were actually validated and played out was in the real bodies that they met in day-to-day life, the ones that sat beside them in school, the brothers and sisters they came home to, the parents who fed them. They had much more of an influence on them than just the celebrity bodies.”

Teens were aware of tricks like airbrushing and the kinds of body images used to sell products, said Dr McSharry, who did the research for a doctorate at NUI Maynooth.

Read more.

Hall 8Late last week, the Financial Times (UK) ran a story about how men are more ‘prone to credit crunch blues’ than women in the same situation. The story is focused on men who think they might lose their jobs, who become more depressed and anxious than women. This assessment comes out of a study from Cambridge University sociologist Brendan Burchell. 

The Financial Times reports, 

This anxiety reflected males’ “macho” belief about “men being the breadwinner”, said Brendan Burchell, the Cambridge sociologist who carried out the research. “Men, unlike women, have few positive ways of defining themselves outside of the workplace between when they leave school and when they retire,” he said.

More from Burchell:

The stress and anxiety of people who had become unemployed “bottomed out” after about six months as they adapted to their new circumstances. By contrast, people who had not lost their jobs but thought they might be fired showed steadily worsening mental health for one to two years.

Mr Burchell said: “Given that most economic forecasts predict that the recession will be long with a slow recovery, the results mean that many people – and men in particular – could be entering into a period of prolonged and growing misery.”

Commenting on possible solutions, Mr Burchell stressed the need “to restabilise the City” – adding a mental health angle to the well-rehearsed economic arguments for shoring up the banking system.



Read on

Facebook Page for Squashy Frog PhotographyAt the end of last week, the Economist ran a story entitled, “Primates on Facebook,” about the capability of humans to maintain social networks via websites such as facebook. The answer it seems, is that we are quite limited…

The Economist reports:

That Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks will increase the size of human social groups is an obvious hypothesis, given that they reduce a lot of the friction and cost involved in keeping in touch with other people. Once you join and gather your “friends” online, you can share in their lives as recorded by photographs, “status updates” and other tidbits, and, with your permission, they can share in yours. Additional friends are free, so why not say the more the merrier?

But perhaps additional friends are not free. Primatologists call at least some of the things that happen on social networks “grooming”. In the wild, grooming is time-consuming and here computerisation certainly helps. But keeping track of who to groom—and why—demands quite a bit of mental computation. You need to remember who is allied with, hostile to, or lusts after whom, and act accordingly. Several years ago, therefore, Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who now works at Oxford University, concluded that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of the social network that an individual of any given species can develop. Extrapolating from the brain sizes and social networks of apes, Dr Dunbar suggested that the size of the human brain allows stable networks of about 148. Rounded to 150, this has become famous as “the Dunbar number”.

But the Economist wouldn’t write a story like this without calling in the sociologists…

…Moreover, sociologists also distinguish between a person’s wider network, as described by the Dunbar number or something similar, and his social “core”. Peter Marsden, of Harvard University, found that Americans, even if they socialise a lot, tend to have only a handful of individuals with whom they “can discuss important matters”. A subsequent study found, to widespread concern, that this number is on a downward trend.

The rise of online social networks, with their troves of data, might shed some light on these matters. So The Economist asked Cameron Marlow, the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook, to crunch some numbers. Dr Marlow found that the average number of “friends” in a Facebook network is 120, consistent with Dr Dunbar’s hypothesis, and that women tend to have somewhat more than men. But the range is large, and some people have networks numbering more than 500, so the hypothesis cannot yet be regarded as proven.

I’m left wanting to know more about this supposed ‘in-house sociologist’ Facebook is keeping on call…

Read more.

IMG_2415The New Scientist reports this morning that, “Like an influenza outbreak, happiness – and misery too – spread through social networks, affecting people through three degrees of separation. For instance, a happy friend of a friend of a friend increases the chances of personal happiness by about 6% (see graphic). Compare that to research showing that a $5000 income bump ups the odds by just 2%, says James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who led the new study.”

“Even people we don’t know and have never met have bigger effect on our mood than substantial increases in income,” he says. He and colleague Nicholas Christakis, of Boston’s Harvard Medical School, made the connection by mining 53,228 social connections between 5124 people who took part in a decades-long clinical study.

This study employed similar methods to those used to study smoking and obesity as part of the Framingham Heart Study, the research subjects recorded social contacts and health status as part of the long-term clinical study. Social links between participants allowed the investigators to map the spread of happiness — one item on the psychological questionnaire included in the study.

Even more than smoking and obesity, happiness spreads best at close distances, they found. A happy next-door neighbour ups the odds of person happiness by 34%, a sibling who lives within 1 mile (1.6 kilometres) by 14%, and a friend within half a mile by a whopping 42%.

The effect falls off through the network, with friends’ happiness boosting the chances of personal happiness by an average of 15% and friends of friends by 10%. As with obesity and smoking, Fowler and Christakis detected no effect beyond three degrees of separation.

And the sociological commentary…

Ruut Veenhoven, a sociologist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, and curator of the World Database of Happiness agrees. “Happy people are typically more involved, are nicer to their kids and their dog, and live longer,” he says.

The study, which he describes as “terribly creative”, might even help people improve their daily lives. “If you want to make people happier, you know at least how it spreads.”

Read the full story.