Middle-aged white people in the United States have suffered a startling rise in death rates since 1999, a sharp reversal in decades of progress toward longer lives, according to new findings by researchers.
The death rate for white men and women ages 45-54 with a high school education or less increased significantly between 1999 and 2013, most likely because of problems with legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and suicide, according to two economics professors at Princeton University.
The rising mortality rate was accompanied by an increase in the rate of illness from addiction to drugs and alcohol as well as suicide, the authors wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that was published Monday.
“Drugs and alcohol, and suicide . . . are clearly the proximate cause,” said Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics, who co-authored the paper with his wife, Anne Case.
“Half a million people are dead who should not be dead,” he added. “About 40 times the Ebola stats. You’re getting up there with HIV-AIDS.”
“There was a large and statistically significant decline in the fraction reporting excellent or very good health” that was matched by increased reports of physical pain, according to the study.
Since about 1970, Americans and residents of other wealthy countries have generally enjoyed longer and healthier lives. But Monday’s bleak findings show a reversal of that among a large segment of white middle-aged Americans.
Economic insecurity, the decay of communities and the breakdown of families probably have had some impact on death and illness rates, in addition to the nation’s drug epidemic, said David Weir, director of the health and retirement study at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.