Recently the headlines in the media read “The Death Rate Is Rising for Middle-Aged Whites”.
The death rates have risen for the last 15 years, reversing decades of longevity in white, middle-aged Americans. The groundbreaking study noted the drivers of this change are largely due to addiction and mental health issues. This alarming trend hit less-educated 45- to 54-year-olds the hardest, with no other groups in the US as affected and no similar declines seen in other rich countries.
For more than a century, U.S. death rates were on a general decline thanks mainly to public health measures and advances in medical treatment. In recent decades, however, there were declines in death rates from both heart disease and cancer, America’s two leading killers.
The rising deaths among white middle-aged Americans could exceed the AIDS toll in the US. A sharp rise in death rates among white middle-aged Americans has claimed nearly as many lives in the past 15 years as the spread of AIDS.
What is the cause?
Drug overdoses, suicide, addiction and chronic liver diseases rose between 1999 and 2013, according to the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Substance abuse and alcoholism are taking their toll. The largest rise occurred primarily among men and women with a high-school education between the ages of 45 and 54. Yet, deaths from those causes also rose for better-educated middle-aged whites as well as whites in other age groups, according to the study.
Many in the public health field believe this study will change the game. Health authorities did not know things were getting this bad this fast. The authors – Ms. Case and Mr. Deaton – found in the health-survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that one in three middle-aged whites reported chronic pain between 2011 and 2013.
Over time, increases in the proportion of middle-aged white people who said they suffered physical pain, trouble with daily activities, and poor mental health make a difference. Certainly, those problems are not unique to whites. However, studies have found white patients with pain are more likely to be prescribed opioid painkillers.
The Danger of Opioids
The findings illustrate the ways in which Americans are responding to physical and mental pain, adversity and changing life situations. The authors linked the rising death rate to the epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Whites have one of the higher rates of nonmedical use of prescription painkillers among ethnic groups, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Additionally, the majority of those who died from overdosing on prescription painkillers between 1999 and 2013 were white, according to the CDC. People between 45 and 54 had the highest rate of such deaths of all age groups, at 10.6 per 100,000.
The increase in deaths started in the late 1990s is probably related to the increased availability around that time of certain prescription painkillers. The researchers cite the surge in the use of powerful opioid painkillers as one contributing factor. Drink and suicide are also potentially related to people needing relief from pain or mental health problems.
Consequently, Middle-aged Americans who are turning to drink and drugs are set to suffer more health problems than their elders unless the downwards trend can be halted.
In order for Americans to reach a healthy old age, this epidemic needs to be brought under control.
However, addictions are hard to treat and pain is hard to control. As a society, we need to think hard about controlling the prescriptions of opioid painkillers. Furthermore, The Federal Drug Administration recently approved Oxycontin, an opioid, for children. While some kids are in terminal pain, abuse by both adults and now children is more possible, especially when pharmaceutical companies misbehave.
Importantly, this study does not answer why chronic pain is so prevalent in middle-aged whites. Additionally, it does not address how to address pain with medications that don’t risk addiction or surgery. Setting aside the media coverage superlatives, health and well-being need to be measured and taught in the US.
We have allowed ourselves to believe, and live, a mated pair of economic lies; that nothing has a value that is not assigned to it by the market; and that the economic life of our communities can safely be handed over to the great corporations. — Wendell Berry