Bees and middle-aged white people: Endangered?

paige-romebgSeveral news outlets carried this story earlier this week (and thanks, Leftover, for the links), that said (from the Washington Post):

A large segment of white middle-aged Americans has suffered a startling rise in its death rate since 1999, according to a review of statistics published Monday that shows a sharp reversal in decades of progress toward longer lives.

The mortality rate for white men and women ages 45-54 with less than a college education increased markedly between 1999 and 2013, most likely because of problems with legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and suicide, the researchers concluded. Before then, death rates for that group dropped steadily, and at a faster pace.

Here’s more on the report, itself. The reasons behind the spike may surprise you. From the New York Times (emphasis is mine):

Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse:alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.


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  1. I would think rising rates of suicide, and drug & alcohol related deaths, could be a sign of higher rates of trauma, stress, hopelessness, and limited opportunity to changes one’s circumstances for the better. Job losses, limited good paying jobs for the middle class, the widening wealth gap, could lead a person to feel powerless & depressed. Drug & alcohol usage can be coping mechanisms, though damaging. And it doesn’t help that heroine (from what I hear) is cheap. I can’t help but wonder if 9-11 changed a 1999 blip in the graph to a trend, too, as the economy tanked and people became more fearful & divisive. Psychologically, we’re a more fearful country and, sadly, more hostile country for struggling individuals & families. People can feel isolated. Fear has seeped into a lot of areas.

  2. It should be pointed out that the authors of the report are not medical professionals. They’re economists. At Princeton. And they do not completely avoid socioeconomic factors in their discussion.

    Although the epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdoses preceded the financial crisis, ties to economic insecurity are possible. After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education. However, the productivity slowdown is common to many rich countries, some of which have seen even slower growth in median earnings than the United States, yet none have had the same mortality experience … The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk, whereas, in Europe, defined-benefit pensions are still the norm. Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on US workers, if they perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans (31).

    It’s kind of a drive-by Happy Meal kind of treatment…but…they didn’t completely avoid it. After all…we are talking about a half a million white folks here. That makes it an epidemic. Better not overlook anything.

  3. More details from a new Commonwealth Fund report covered here by KHN.

    Deaths from suicide and substance abuse explain about 40 percent of the “mortality gap,” while 60 percent is tied to death rates failing to drop as expected for nearly all of the top-ranked causes of death of middle-aged whites, Commonwealth said.
    Commonwealth suggested the root causes might be tied to that population’s decline in social and economic status.

    [T]hey have lower incomes, fewer are employed and fewer are married, it said. Research published last year found that the higher death rate for the group was concentrated among whites without four-year college degrees.

    Commonwealth said its findings increase concerns about continuing lack of health insurance — some states with the highest mortality rates did not expand their Medicaid programs to low-income adults. But insurance expansion alone won’t close the mortality gap, it said.

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