Why Has The Death Rate Of Middle-Aged White Americans Risen So Suddenly?

The rise in deaths has only been seen in white middle-aged Americans, when compared to other age or ethnic groups, or other rich nations. Burlingham/Shutterstock
Josh Davis 03 Nov 2015, 21:00

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 comparision, 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.  

During the period between 1978 and 1998, death rates for white Americans between 45 to 54 years of age was dropping by around 2 percent a year on average, in line with other rich countries such as the U.K., Sweden, France and Germany. But from 1999 things changed, and mortality rates for this group started increasing by half a percent a year, while those for non-whites, as well as for other rich countries, continued to decline. All of this has contributed to almost 500,000 extra deaths since 1999, and is compared by the researchers to the amount of lives lost due to the AIDS epidemic that swept America starting in the 1980s.

The research was undertaken by the 2015 Nobel Laureate for Economics Dr. Angus Deaton, who stumbled upon the findings by accident with Dr. Anne Case while looking at statistics on suicide rates and reported happiness. While the results are deeply shocking and saddening, Deaton says that if this epidemic can be controlled, and deaths brought down, these people who feel seemingly left behind by society could still live to a healthy old age.    

Image in text: Graph detailing the rise in deaths among middle-aged white Americans (USW) when compared to the dropping rates seen amongst hispanic Americans (USH), France (FRA), Germany (GER), United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE). Case and Deaton 2015.

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