Article

Lethal forethought: delayed reward discounting differentiates high- and low-lethality suicide attempts in old age.

Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, USA.
Biological psychiatry (Impact Factor: 8.93). 02/2011; 70(2):138-44. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.12.025
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT The decision to commit suicide may be impulsive, but lethal suicidal acts often involve planning and forethought. People who attempt suicide make disadvantageous decisions in other contexts, but nothing is known about the way they decide about the future. Can the willingness to postpone future gratification differentiate between individuals prone to serious, premeditated and less serious, unplanned suicidal acts?
Four groups of depressed participants aged 60 and older made choices between smaller immediate and larger delayed monetary rewards: 15 who had made high-lethality suicide attempts, 14 who had made low-lethality suicide attempts, 12 who seriously contemplated suicide, and 42 people with depression, but no history of suicidal thoughts. The reference group was 31 psychiatrically healthy elders.
Individuals who had made low-lethality attempts displayed an exaggerated preference for immediate rewards compared with nonsuicidal depressed and healthy control subjects. Those who had carried out high-lethality suicide attempts were more willing to delay future rewards, compared with low-lethality attempters. Better planned suicide attempts were also associated with willingness to wait for larger rewards. These effects were unchanged after accounting for education, global cognitive function, substance use disorders, psychotropic medications, and possible brain injury from attempts. Discount rates were correlated with having debt, but were not significantly associated with income, hopelessness, depressive severity, premorbid IQ, age at first attempt, or choice of violent means.
Although clinicians often focus on impulsivity in patients at risk for suicide, these data suggest that identifying biological characteristics and treatments for nonimpulsive suicidal older people may be even more important.

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