NEW YORK (AP) _ Elderly Americans have the highest suicide rate of any age group, and few of them talk about killing themselves before they do it, according to a Gallup survey.

Most of those suicides are men; women, who keep up their social contacts in old age, account for only 20 percent of post-65 suicides, the survey found.

Speaking Thursday on the findings, Robert Schussel, a marketing researcher for Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, said: ''There's a huge generational gap in the attitude about suicide. Teen-agers talk about it a lot, there are a lot of attempts, often not successful.''

But for the elderly, ''Suicide is really a taboo subject. They don't talk about it, they don't talk to their friends about it, they just go out and do it,'' Schussel said.

In the survey of 802 Americans ages 60 and over, only 1 percent said they had thought about committing suicide within the last six months.

One reason few older people talk about committing suicide is the fear that such talk will land them in a nursing home, said Esther Dyer, an executive with Empire Blue Cross.

Suicides among the elderly are drastically underreported, said Nancy Osgood, a Virginia Medical College professor specializing in the ills of the aged. She said many suicidal old people take a slow, indirect way out by starving themselves or not taking life-sustaining medicine.

National statistics show older people, 26 percent of the U.S. population, commit 39 percent of the officially recognized suicides. Their rate, 20.1 suicides per 100,000 people, is 65 percent higher than the nation as a whole, Dyer said.

The rate also is nearly twice that of Americans at the other end of the age scale, said George Gallup Jr., comparing the findings with that of his organization's survey of teen suicides last year.

A typical old-age suicide is a white man who lives alone in one of the mountain states and uses a gun to kill himself, Dyer said.

She said suicide rates in Nevada, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming generally were two or three times higher than in New York. Mid-Atlantic states have the lowest rates in the country.

Those elderly women who do kill themselves usually use drug overdoses or poison.

David Clark of the psychiatry department of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago called unrecognized psychiatric illness, rather than living conditions, the major contributor to old-age suicide.

Three-quarters of elderly suicides saw a doctor within a month of killing themselves, many within a day, and studies indicate ''they resisted psychological inquiry,'' Clark said.

Gallup warned that the survey, conducted by telephone last month, could not be generalized for the total U.S. population. About 90 percent of the 802 people polled were living independently at home.

Aged people who are institutionalized or unable or unwilling to answer a phone were underrepresented.