A Group of Middle-Aged Whites in the U.S. Is Dying at a Startling Rate

Lenny Bernstein and Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, November 2, 2015

A large segment of white middle-aged Americans has suffered a startling rise in its death rate since 1999, according to a review of statistics published Monday that shows a sharp reversal in decades of progress toward longer lives.

The mortality rate for white men and women ages 45-54 with less than a college education increased markedly between 1999 and 2013, most likely because of problems with legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and suicide, the researchers concluded. Before then, death rates for that group dropped steadily, and at a faster pace.

An increase in the mortality rate for any large demographic group in an advanced nation has been virtually unheard of in recent decades, with the exception of Russian men after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The rising death rate was accompanied by an increase in the rate of illness, the authors wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Drugs and alcohol, and suicide . . . are clearly the proximate cause,” said Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics, who co-authored the paper with his wife, Anne Case. Both are economics professors at Princeton University.

“Half a million people are dead who should not be dead,” he added. “About 40 times the Ebola stats. You’re getting up there with HIV-AIDS.”

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While the death rate for African Americans is still greater than the rate for whites, the turnaround among whites is shocking because of the advantages they enjoy, said David Weir, director of the health and retirement study at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Typically, socioeconomic circumstances “gang up on African Americans, who have lower education, lower incomes and race all working against them,” said Weir, who also reviewed the study for the journal. “In this case, that’s not happening.”

Weir said economic insecurity, the decay of communities and the breakdown of families probably have had some impact on death and illness rates, in addition to the nation’s opioid epidemic and the factors the authors identified. {snip}

“I think it has to have something to do [with] the pain underlying it,” both physical and psychic, he said. “That is the age when people have their midlife crisis . . . I think it has to do with that stage of life, and physical ailments do start to accumulate at that age.

“This paper really is a question, not an answer,” he added.

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