With massive advances in medicine, better diagnoses and easier access to help, death rates in most developed countries – and within most age and ethnic groups – are understandably falling. But it turns out that this isn’t true for everyone, as a recent study has found that bucking these trends, the death rates for middle-aged white Americans over the past 15 years have actually been rising.
While the exact reasons might be difficult to disentangle, the researchers tie these shocking results to an increase in suicides, as well as higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse. While the death rates caused by these factors are seen to rise for all levels of education, the increase is most pronounced for those who are least educated, rising by a staggering 22 percent, and it is the huge increase among this sub-group that is pulling the death rate up for the rest of the middle-aged white Americans as a whole.
Drivers for this trend could be the increased availability of prescription drugs, and the decrease in price and rise in quality of heroin. The researchers also suggest that an increase in financial stress, with wage stagnation starting in the late ’90s and the financial crash hitting the least-educated the hardest with wages dropping by an average of 19 percent, might also be playing a role. They note that this group of white middle-aged Americans were promised a better financial situation by this stage in their life, which was then pulled out from under their feet when the markets tanked. In comparison, the researchers suggest, those from other ethnic backgrounds never had such expectations in the first place, and so were less impacted when financial stability wasn’t delivered.
When looking at the cause of deaths amongst the group, they found that the increase was explained by a massive rise in suicides, up 81 percent, deaths related to drug and alcohol abuse which was up fourfold, and deaths caused by chronic liver disease and cirrhosis rising by 50 percent. In comparison, they found that an increase in obesity within the group only accounted for a fraction of the rise in deaths. The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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