Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton recently reported a disturbing trend in mortality rates among white Americans. Rather than continuing to go down, death rates are now going up, and alcohol overdoses, suicide and chronic liver disease including cirrhosis are the main reasons why.
Specifically, Case and Deaton highlighted how 45- to 54-year-old whites, whose education consisted of a high school diploma or less, showed a death rate increase of over 20 percent between 1999 and 2013. In other words, about half a million people were dead who shouldn’t be.
A perplexing trend
Laudan Aron, who is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population, re-examined the same data, which was from the National Comorbidity Survey and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. They pointed out that the mortality rate for white women age 45 to 54 was three times higher than for their male counterparts. Prescription opioid and heroin overdoses and suicide were the main causes of death in women.
Poor, young, white Americans also had a sharp increase in mortality. The deaths in the younger age group was also primarily due to alcohol, drug use and suicide. By 2014, the mortality rate from drug overdose for 25- to 34-year-olds was five times that in 1999 and three times higher in 35- to 44-year-olds.
Black and Hispanic Americans continued the decades-long downward trend in mortality along with all ethnic groups in comparable nations. It is important to note that black Americans still have a higher mortality rate than other groups, though the gap between blacks and whites has narrowed significantly. Hispanics currently have the lowest mortality rates.
Possible catalysts for the trend
Media responses to Case and Deaton’s findings were full of speculation about the cause of this rise in mortality, and several coincidental trends emerged over the same time period.
First of all, the middle class began vanishing and a two-tiered system emerged: the financial elite and the working poor. The strong relationship between poverty and substance use is complex but well-described and likely playing a role in the problem.
Next, the timing is uncanny with regard to various wars. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Muslim leaders had reduced opium poppy growth to almost zero because drug use goes against the teachings of Islam. After the invasion, opium poppy growth resumed and has been increasing annually ever since. Most of that multibillion-dollar drug business started coming into the United States, and death rates began to soar.
Finally, a massive number of Americans who haven’t yet died are clearly suffering from something. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fact sheet, about 25 percent of American adults currently have a mental illness and about 50 percent will develop one at some point over the course of their lifetime. Americans have the highest prevalence of mental illness in the world.
While the increase in mortality rates for white Americans is disturbing, the even higher rate for black Americans is more so. Rather than dying from despair, all Americans can defend themselves and their families from the dangers of living in the United States today. The statistics presented shout one very clear message: to become or remain sober and help our fellow men and women do the same. That alone would change everything.
Perhaps it is society, not Americans themselves, who is sick.
“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
— Jiddu Krishnamurti
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About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at email@example.com.