NPR shared a new study yesterday that held surprising news, a decades-long decline in the death rate of 45-to-54-year-old white Americans is now headed in the wrong direction. Their death rate is increasing, while at the same time, mortality rates among middle aged blacks and Hispanics have decreased.
According to researchers, while the cause of the reversal is unclear, they speculate it might be the combination of the recent bad economy fueling a rise in suicides, plus overdoses from prescription painkillers and illegal drugs, as well as alcohol abuse.
While overall the U.S. mortality rate has been falling by about 2 percent a year since the 1970s among middle aged whites mortality rates increased by 8.9 percent between 1999 and 2013.
The research was conducted by Angus Deaton, a professor of economics at Princeton University along with his wife, Anne Case, another Princeton economist. Deaton was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on poverty.
“Pretty quickly we started falling off our chairs because of what we found,” says Deaton, whose findings were published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The mortality rate among whites ages 45 to 54 had increased by a half-percent a year from 381.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 415.4 in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, the researchers found.
Even so, the mortality rate for middle-aged African-Americans was higher: 581.9 per 100,000 in 2013. Hispanics fared better with a mortality rate of 269.6 per 100,000 in the same year.
Based on the findings, Deaton and Case calculated that 488,500 Americans had died during that period who would have been alive if the trend hadn’t reversed.
“This is a deeply concerning trend,” says Dr. Thomas Frieden, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but wasn’t involved in this research. “We shouldn’t see death rates going up in any group in society.”
Death Rate Rising Only in America
Although the Princeton researchers analyzed data from other Western countries they didn’t see the same trend. “It’s particularly important that they don’t see it in other countries,” says John Haaga, the acting director of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging, which funded the research. “So something’s clearly going wrong with this age group in America.”
The trend appears to be being driven by increased mortality among those with the least amount of education.
“Those are the people who have really been hammered by the long-term economic malaise,” Deaton says. “Their wages in real terms have been going down. So they get into middle age having their expectations just not met at all.”
It remains unclear why the mortality rate only increased among whites and not African-Americans or Hispanics.
Deaton and others have a theory about the difference for whites.
“One possible explanation is that for whites their parents had done better economically and they had been doing pretty well. Then all of a sudden the financial floor dropped out from underneath them,” says Jon Skinner, a professor of economic and medicine at Dartmouth College who co-authored a commentary accompanying the article. “For African-American and Hispanic households things had never been that optimistic and so perhaps the shock wasn’t quite as great.”
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