The incidence of suicide in American society has been rising over the last three decades. It is the leading cause of death for the 20 to 24 year-old age group and the second leading cause for those aged 25 to 45. The rate of suicide is higher among military service veterans than in society at large in every age and demographic group. There are quite a few risk factors for suicide including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and social isolation. However, some people have a greater predisposition for suicide than others. This is a matter of suicide risk genetics.
Genetic Predisposition For Diseases
There are health problems that run in families. High blood pressure, diabetes, and high levels of cholesterol come to mind. Mental health issues are similar in that autism, schizophrenia, nicotine addiction, and alcohol abuse are seen in families as well. Knowing this, researchers have looked for a genetic link for suicide as well. Recent work in this area has been done at the University of Utah. Something that has been a great help to them is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) has kept diligent records since the 1700s. These records include genealogical and health data. And the state of Utah has kept record of deaths by suicides since 1904. These sources of data allow the researchers to track the incidence of suicide in families and compare it to that in society at large. Then the researchers found DNA samples from eight thousand people who subsequently died by suicide.
Genetics As a Predictor of Suicide
Among the various suicide risk factors the strongest is a prior suicide attempt. But even in this group only ten percent go on to die by suicide. More than half of people who take their own lives had no prior suicide attempt. The University of Utah researchers have found associations with the incidence of suicide from bipolar disorder, depression, autism, and schizophrenia. They have also found a gene (neurexin-1) that is linked to a higher incidence of suicide. All of these factors run in families are thus valid genetic predictors of suicide.
The head of the University of Utah project says that they do not think they will ever find just one gene that is responsible for greater suicide risk. Rather they will find combinations of gene in complex associations. A big part of solving this issue will have to do with access to more data. Here is where the VA genetic research database will come into play.
Million Veterans Database<
As reported in The New York Times, the Veterans Administration has just added the millionth person their million veteran program database. It has taken twelve years to accumulate this many people and this much data for a genetic database. It is now the largest database of this kind in the world. It contains not only genetic information but data from VA electronic records and information about environmental exposure and diet.
Currently is data is available only to researchers and physicians practicing in the VA system. However, hundreds of studies have already been published using this data. The database will continue to grow as more veterans are enrolled. More data will lead to more accurate research results regarding genetic predispositions for diseases, effectiveness of therapies, and things like drug side effects. Genetic risk of suicide will be one of the areas of study that will benefit from this huge and growing database. It will be especially important for research into suicide risk because of the higher incidence of suicide among veterans than in society at large. Because of the representation of a broad demographic mix in the VA database it will likely be more valuable than ones that have been accumulated in Europe but include few minority groups in those regions.
Genetic Risk of Flashbacks
Because of the million veteran database genes have been discovered that like to post-traumatic stress disorder and specifically to flashbacks of traumatic events. Because PTSD in and of itself is a major risk factor for suicide, this is useful predictive information. It will help identify those at risk and help in directing therapies. This may include research into the effectiveness of psychedelic medicines. So much information in this area is anecdotal or based on reports of recreational drug use without other relevant data. Having the VA database to work with research results is likely to be more accurate and meaningful.