Background: Diagnosis of dementia is occurring earlier, and much research concerns the identification of predementia states and the hunt for biomarkers of Alzheimer's disease. Reports of suicidal behavior and requests for euthanasia in persons with dementia may be increasing.
Methods: We performed a selective literature review of suicide risk in persons with dementia and the ethical issues associated with euthanasia in this population.
Results: In the absence of any effective treatments for Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia, there is already evidence that persons with mild cognitive change and early dementia are at risk of suicidal behavior, often in the context of comorbid depression. The ensuing clinical, ethical, and legal dilemmas associated with physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in the context of dementia are a subject of intense debate. By analogy, the preclinical and early diagnoses of Huntington's disease are associated with an increased risk of suicidal behavior. Thus there is the potential for a preclinical and early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (through biomarkers, neuroimaging, and clinical assessment) to result in increased suicide risk and requests for physician-assisted suicide.
Conclusions: Although dementia specialists have long recognized the importance of a sensitive approach to conveying bad news to patients and families and the possibility of depressive reactions, suicidal behavior has not been regarded as a likely outcome. Such preconceptions will need to change, and protocols to monitor and manage suicide risk will need to be developed for this population.
2010 The Alzheimer's Association. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.