The results of a postmortem toxicology study indicate that elderly people who commit suicide usually do not have antidepressant medications in their systems at the time of death.

Antidepressants were found in less than 1 in 4 victims overall, and in even fewer of those in the oldest age group, 85 years and older.

"Assuming that many of the suicide victims had clinically treatable depression, these findings implicate problems in the delivery of specific antidepressant pharmacologic treatment to the 'old-old'," Dr. Robert C. Abrams, from Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, and colleagues conclude in a report in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Their findings are based on a study of 255 suicide victims from New York City who were at least 65 years of age at the time of their death between 2001 and 2004.

Toxicology results available for 162 victims revealed the presence of antidepressant medication in only about 23 percent of cases.

By age group, rates of antidepressant detection were 22.0 percent in subjects 65 to 74 years of age, 26.8 percent in those 75 to 84 years, and just 16.7 percent in those 85 years and older.

There was some evidence that many had been using anti-anxiety drugs, hypnotics and painkillers in lieu of antidepressants.

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, March 2009.