Death Rates Rise for Wide Swath of White Adults, Study Finds

Betsy McKay, Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2017

In 2015, two Princeton University economists published a landmark paper showing that mortality was rising for white middle-aged Americans after decades of decline.

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Now a new analysis from the same pair, released Thursday by the Brookings Institution, paints an even bleaker picture of the nation’s largest-population group.

Mortality has been rising since the turn of this century for an even broader swath of white adults, starting at age 25, the researchers found, driven by troubles in a hard-hit working class. Death rates for white non-Hispanics with a high-school education or less now exceed those of blacks overall, the pair said—and they’re 30% higher for whites age 50 to 54 than for blacks overall of that age.

Blacks have long had a much higher death rate than whites, but that rate has dropped steeply since the beginning of this century, while the rate for whites has crept up.

Driving the uptick are increases in “deaths of despair”—from drugs, alcohol-related liver diseases and suicide, as well as a slowdown in progress against death in middle age from heart disease and cancer, the nation’s biggest killers, wrote Anne Case and Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, her husband. The pair examined more than 15 data sets, including government health statistics, death certificates and various economic indicators.

Heroin and Perscription Opioids Crisis

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., looks at the poster during the Senate Democrats’ news conference to ”demand emergency funding to tackle prescription opioid and heroin crisis” on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call). (Credit Image: © Bill Clark/Congressional Quarterly/NC via ZUMA Press)

The analysis paints a portrait of a gradual “collapse of the white, high-school-educated working class after its heyday in the early 1970s,” whose health, mental well-being, and attachment to the labor force have become successively worse for people born after 1945, they said.

The opioid epidemic has only heightened a trend that was already under way before those drugs hit the market, they said.

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“This doesn’t seem to be about current income,” Ms. Case said in a call with reporters. “It seems to be about accumulating despair.”

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The work deepens a growing body of academic and government research into the possible causes of rising mortality rates among whites, whose ills among the working class are reshaping the nation’s social, political and economic landscape.

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The phenomenon is occurring all across the country, both in urban and rural areas, Ms. Case and Mr. Deaton wrote. And the ills are so deep and complex that it could take many years and many changes in policy to reverse.

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