A Death Knell is Ringing for White Middle-Aged Americans

Research reveals alarming new statistics

Posted Nov 05, 2015

Racom/Shutterstock
Source: Racom/Shutterstock

For decades, death rates for Americans of every race, ethnicity and age have been falling. Likewise, comprehensive death rates in other wealthy nations have been consistently declining. But unexpected findings in a new Princeton University study reveal rising death rates for one significant segment of our population: white middle-aged men and women. While the death rate is rising for members at all education levels, researchers found the most profound impact on individuals with lower levels of education. For those men and women, morbidity rates climbed at an unprecedented rate—22 percent––from 1999 to 2013. Overall, the researchers estimate that the rising mortality rate for white middle-aged men and women resulted in half a million more people who died since 1998, who would not have died if previous patterns had continued—an impact comparable to the devastating loss of life from the US Aids epidemic.

How and why are white middle-aged individuals dying?

Researchers linked these deaths to rising levels of drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, finding that for those less educated, drug and alcohol deaths rose fourfold, suicides increased by 81 percent, and deaths caused by liver disease and cirrhosis increased 50 percent.

They then looked further to the potential causes behind these forms of mortality, pointing to escalating levels of chronic pain, financial stress, and difficulties with work, socializing and activities of daily living. The resulting psychological and physical distress appeared to cascade to create an “epidemic of despair,” which becomes exponentially more dangerous in an environment where prescription drugs and heroin are becoming readily available. 

The Possible Missing Link

I would argue that this study stops one step too soon by failing to address another major factor related to deaths across America. Experts have determined that our society is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, with one study finding that 35 percent of adults over age 45 or approximately 44 million men and women are chronically lonely.  Numerous studies causally link loneliness to addiction and suicide and preventable death. Conversely, decades of research have firmly established the correlation between stronger social support and lower stress levels and better physical and mental health.

Human connection can be the factor that changes the course of a person’s life. Friends and family can help steer someone to positive health resources that relieve pain and suffering. Friends and family can provide crucial psychological support that eases stress and changes a person’s perspective.  Friends and family can create an environment of accountability that prevents abuse leading to addiction or encourages recovery.

Perhaps this study is implicitly telling us is that our white middle-aged population is being devastated by loneliness, a loneliness that is so deep and dismal that it is driving men and women to drugs and alcohol and death in droves. To reverse this trend, we need to determine how to replace isolation with connection. 

Notes:

Case, A. & Deaton, A.,(2015). Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,  Doi: 10.1073/pnas/1518393112

http://www.aarp.org/personal-growth/transitions/info-09-2010/all_the_lon...