Penn Researcher Examines Public-Health Issues Concerning Firearms and Senior Citizens

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | | 215-898-4820January 19, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — More than 17 million Americans 65 or older have at least one firearm.  Based on the current patterns of gun ownership and population growth, the number of elderly people who own a firearm is expected to increase.  In an article released by the American Journal of Public Health, Susan B. Sorenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice, identifies public-health considerations related to firearm ownership among the elderly.

Co-authored by Brian Mertens while he was an undergraduate student at Penn, the article focuses on the relationship between the elderly and firearms, including its potential implications for personal and public health.

The elderly have the highest rate of suicide, Sorenson said.  A firearm is the most common means of suicide in the United States, and rates of firearm suicide are highest among those aged 75 years or older, according to the article.

“By 2030, nearly one in five U.S. residents will reach age 65 or older,” Sorenson wrote. “Like most Americans, the elderly have Constitutional right to own firearms and there are many elderly people who are responsible gun owners. However, the evidence suggests that having more older people with guns may not be a benefit to society, and public-health policies must take action to promote the health of elderly persons and the safety of their caregivers.”

The article makes note of specific considerations when it comes to armed elders who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and how such circumstances can affect their caregivers.

“Memory, thinking and judgment as well as physical and behavioral competence issues related to an elderly person’s safe operation of a motor vehicle also apply to firearms,” Sorenson said. “People with Alzheimer’s disease can have memory loss, personality changes, confusion, anxiety, fluctuating lucidity and other symptoms that can affect a person’s ability to responsibly, competently and safely own and operate a firearm. It creates a very dangerous situation for everyone involved.”

The article suggests that new research could contribute to the development of guidelines for families who are concerned about their elderly relatives’ as well as their own safety; assist nursing homes and other care facilities as they create policies for residents’ possession of firearms; and provide training for health-care providers who work with patients about dying.

Handgun ownership is potentially problematic for the elderly, according to the article.  Well-designed studies document a substantially increased risk of violent death, particularly among the elderly, for at least five years following the purchase of a handgun.  Despite intentions to the contrary, a firearm may have the unintended consequence of making the occupants of a household less safe.

The authors conclude that reducing access to firearms, particularly among those with dementia, increasing neighborhood safety and household security and improving health-care options at the end of life may help lower the risks associated with armed senior citizens.