‘Deaths of despair’ shortening lifespans of white Americans

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Overdoses Force Ohio Coroner to Use Funeral Home to Store Bodies

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Drug overdoses, suicides and alcoholism — so-called “deaths of despair” — now cut short the lives of working class white Americans in middle age at rates greater than minorities, new research shows.

The findings come from two Princeton University researchers following up on their startling 2015 study that found the life expectancy of less-educated, middle-aged whites began backsliding in the late 1990s.

The researches wrote that the “decline in real wages led to a reduction in labor force participation, with cascading effects on marriage, health, and mortality from deaths of despair.”

The latest study was released late last week by the Brookings Institution.

The economists also said a lack of progress in treating heart disease and cancer for the rising mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school education, now about 30 percent greater than for blacks. In 1999 the opposite was true.

For those 50-54 with a high school education or less, the mortality rate in 2015 for non-Hispanic whites was about 927 deaths per 100,000 compared with 703 for blacks. The same comparison in 1999 showed the rate for whites at 722 and 945 for blacks.

Midlife mortality by all causes in the U.S., men and women ages 50-54.
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Midlife mortality by all causes in the U.S., men and women ages 50-54.

The researchers suggest a "cumulative disadvantage over life, in the labor market, in marriage and child outcomes, and in health, is triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education."

The trend — documented in nearly every part of the country and affecting men and women, rural and urban dwellers similarly — would take years to reverse even with policy changes that improve job prospects and earnings, or redistribute income, the researchers argue. And those in midlife now are likely to do much worse in old age than those currently older than 65.

Overdose deaths more than doubled nationwide since 1999, mirroring the research. Last year in Montgomery County, 355 people died from confirmed or suspected overdoses and the county is bracing for a higher number this year.

Countering the over-prescribing of opioids is one clear lever government officials could pull, the two scholars suggest.