Dear White People Of A Certain Age, we have some bad news. You’re dying more rapidly than every other age, racial, and ethnic group. In fact, while death rates in America are otherwise declining, researchers have detected a rise in middle-aged white American deaths.
The New York Times reports that Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case “concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver damage and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”
Moreover, Deaton and Case determined that this elevated death rate is largely concentrated within a particular socioeconomic bracket. Gina Kolata from the New York Times explains:
“The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans.”
And the increase is alarmingly acute. White people between the ages of 45 and 54 “with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.” Deaton remarks to the Times, “Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this.”
With so many deaths ostensibly caused by suicide, drugs, and alcohol, of course we want to discern the cause. Why would this subset of people be more inclined to take their own lives — or to engage in risky behavior to the extent that it puts them in peril? Deaton and Case cannot offer any definitive answers, though they note that “a more pessimistic outlook among whites about their financial futures” may be one factor. And after all, it seems reasonable that those in the most precarious economic position would be most tormented by financial woes.
Yet, Case identified other accommodating issues, including increasing reports of pain, the inability to work, “difficulty socializing, difficulty shopping, difficulty walking two blocks.”
We can hope that more research will result in the means to combat this unfortunate trend. Moreover, the clear tie between higher death rates and economic marginalization should sound an alarm. It signals the urgent need to make life more tenable for everyone, not just those with the deepest pockets.
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