Rising Mortality Rate among White, Middle-Aged Americans Is Fueled by 'Deaths of Despair,' Say Economists

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, March 24, 2017 | Go to article overview

Rising Mortality Rate among White, Middle-Aged Americans Is Fueled by 'Deaths of Despair,' Say Economists


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


In 2015, two Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, reported the startling finding that, after decades of decline, the death rate for white, middle-aged Americans -- people aged 45 to 54 -- had steadily climbed by about half a percent per year from 1999 to 2013.

During that same period, all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, as well as all other age groups, saw their deaths rates continue to fall.

The reasons for the higher death rates among white, middle-aged Americans was not clear, but Case and Deaton suggested three main factors were likely involved: substance abuse (alcohol, prescription opioids and heroin), chronic liver disease (often caused by alcohol abuse) and suicide.

In a new paper published Thursday, the husband-and-wife team examined two additional years of data and reached the same troubling conclusion: white, middle-aged Americans are dying at younger ages than their peers. This time, however, the researchers were able get a better understanding of what's behind the trend.

"These deaths of despair have been accompanied by reduced labor force participation, reduced marriage rates, increases in reports of poor health and poor mental health," Case told National Public Radio's David Greene. "So we are beginning to thread a story in that it's possible that [the trend is] consistent with the labor market collapsing for people with less than a college degree. In turn, those people are being less able to form stable marriages, and in turn that has effects on the kind of economic and social supports that people need in order to thrive."

An educational divide

The educational divide shows up clearly in the numbers. For example, the overdose, suicide and alcohol-related death rate in 2015 for white men aged 50 to 54 was 196 per 100,000 for those with a high school degree or less, compared to 47 per 100,000 for those who had completed four years of college.

Both groups saw a troubling rise in their rates since 1999, but the increase was three times higher for those with a high school degree or less (130 percent versus 44 percent).

A similar educational divide can be seen among women. …

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