Despair Is Killing White, Middle-Aged Americans

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Newman_051115_2While death rates have been on the decline for many groups of people, researchers from Princeton University have noted that the death rate for white, middle-aged Americans has increased significantly, even while death rates have declined for black and Hispanic populations in developed countries.

In an analysis to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have found that the death rate increase is not due to common diseases like cancer or diabetes, but by substance abuse-related diseases, overdoses, and suicide.

The findings indicate that despair and depression may be responsible for killing a large number of white, middle-aged Americans. The death tally for these deaths almost matches the number of deaths from AIDS in the U.S.

Similar increases in deaths for white, middle-aged people were not found in any other developed country.

“We sort of fell off our chairs when we saw that in the data, because that’s just not what’s happening elsewhere,” said Anne Case, co-author of the study.

The findings are startling, as they suggest that more middle-aged white people are dying from substance abuse and mental health issues than from some of the most common types of death, including lung cancer. The death rate for middle-aged whites has climbed by about half a percent each year since 1998.

As well, the death rate increased more significantly for those without post-secondary education. The least educated individuals saw a 22% increase in deaths, far greater than in any other group.

Researchers estimate that anywhere from 90,000 to 500,000 deaths would have prevented if the death rate didn’t increase so dramatically.

While deaths from substance abuse and suicide increased among many demographics, it was only among white, middle-aged individuals where there were enough deaths to cause an uptick in the overall death rate.

Due to socioeconomic factors, drug addiction and depression have long been considered to disproportionately affect minorities, including the black and Hispanic populations. However, as this new study joins other recent research—alcohol, drugs, and depression are now being considered a major health concern among middle-aged, white Americans. Drug overdoses for middle-aged people have increased by more than 10 times since 1990.

The researchers also note that there has been an increase in the number of white, middle-aged Americans reporting chronic pain. Study co-author Angus Deaton suggests that chronic pain can be a precursor or risk factor to suicide.

The exact reason for this increase in “despair” is unknown. One theory is that declining job prospects and financial security are causing more people to become depressed. The study authors have highlighted this as one of the main potential causes, noting that after “the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than their parents.”

Sources for Today’s Article:
Bernstein, L. et al., “A group of middle-aged whites in the U.S. is dying at a startling rate,” The Washington Post web site, November 2, 2015;
Khazan, O., “Middle-Aged White Americans Are Dying of Despair,” The Atlantic web site, November 4, 2015;
Pallarito, K., “This is Killing More White, Middle-Aged, Americans,” WebMD web site, November 2, 2015;

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Adrian Newman, B.A.

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Adrian has been working in the information publishing world since 1997. But when it comes to health information, he’s a self-admitted late bloomer. A couch potato since pre-school, Adrian was raised on TV, video games and a lifestyle that led to childhood obesity that followed him well into adulthood. But when he hit his forties, he decided enough was enough. He had a family to take care of and his days of overeating, under-exercising and inactivity were going to lead... Read Full Bio »