Nevadans More Likely to Commit Suicide, Die Young

Nevadans have higher rates of suicide and are more likely to die young, of substance abuse and of certain chronic illnesses than the national average, an analysis by the Las Vegas Sun found.

A survey of mortality data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Nevada has the 12th-highest rate of death among people younger than 65.

Nevada's rate of deadly accidental poisoning and exposure to noxious substances, which includes drug overdose, is almost twice the national rate. Clark County has the nation's third-highest rate of fatal drug overdose for counties with more than 1 million people, behind only Bronx County, N.Y., and Cook County, Ill.

The state's rate of death from alcoholic liver disease is 1.7 times that of the national rate and Clark County is ninth among counties with more than 1 million people.

Nevada's suicide rate is about twice the national figure and Clark County is by far the highest among counties with more than 1 million residents.

"It's always striking to see those kind of elevated rates across a whole range of outcomes," said Matt Wray, a UNLV sociologist who specializes in the study of suicide.

Sheniz Moonie, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at UNLV, said the large amount of data each year — about 2.5 million Americans die annually — reduces the margin of error. The paper looked at data from about 14.5 million deaths from 1999 to 2004.

Other experts said the CDC numbers provide a starting point for more research, but are not conclusive.

The findings figure into the debate over whether Las Vegas' libertine environment causes behaviors that lead to substance abuse and suicide, or whether people predisposed to such behaviors — "brighter burning candles who flame out" — are drawn here, Wray said.

"My belief is that there are things about this place that are worth looking at closely," Wray said.

Contributing factors to Nevada's high suicide rate include problem gambling, social isolation, substance abuse and the state's weak mental health system, he said.

Las Vegas' preponderance of drinking and drugs may explain the CDC's rates of death from liver disease caused by alcoholism and accidental drug overdose, UNLV addiction specialist Larry Ashley said.

"We're a city based in excesses, in many ways," he said. But Las Vegas and Nevada also are short on treatment options for people with addictions, he said.

"There are probably citizens who need to be in treatment who can't because they can't access them," Ashley said.

Dr. John McDonald, dean of the University of Nevada School of Medicine, said it is particularly interesting that Nevada is the only Western state that's high on the list of places where people die young.

In Nevada, an average of 285 people per 100,000 who were younger than age 65 died annually from 1999 to 2004. That's 9 percent higher than in New Mexico, 15 percent higher than in Arizona and 41 percent higher than in California.

UNLV epidemiologist Moonie said many of the chronic illnesses that cause death at higher rates in Nevada are associated with risk factors and behaviors. Artery hardening is caused by a buildup of fat that's caused by diet. Alcoholic liver disease, which includes fatty liver and cirrhosis, is caused by long-term drinking.

Such chronic conditions raise questions about whether there are particular behaviors among Nevadans that contribute to greater disease and death, Moonie said. She ticked off a few relevant questions: Are Nevadans less active? Do they have high-fat diets? Do they consume more alcohol than in other states?

The CDC shows Nevada ranked eighth in the nation in 2006 for heavy drinking, defined as males who drink at least two alcoholic beverages a day and women who drink at least one a day. Nevada residents were the 15th least active compared with other states' residents, according to 2005 CDC data. But the CDC information also showed that Nevada's diet was not markedly different compared with other states in terms of fruit and vegetable consumption.