Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Killing Ourselves

Two reports in recent weeks describe a strange phenomenon:  During a period when medical advances have never been higher, more adult Americans are dying at younger ages than before.

The trend has been noticed among white adults under the age of 65.  Hispanic and African American populations are not so much affected.

Here's a chart from the first series of articles about death rates among various groups of 45- to 54-year-olds.  White Americans (red line) and Hispanic Americans (blue line) are compared with similar-aged adults in several western European countries.

This week, the New York Times has been reporting that the trend is even broader.  After examining CDC data on deaths between 1990 and 2014, a Page 1 article said this:

        "It found death rates for non-Hispanic whites either rising or flattening
        for all adult age groups under 65 -- a trend that was particularly 
        pronounced in women -- even as medical advances sharply reduced
        deaths from traditional killers like heart disease.  Death rates for 
        blacks and most Hispanic groups continued to fall."
There were other observations.

First, the death rate rose faster (23 percent) for people without high school educations, but slower (4 percent) for those at least one college degree.

Second, the rate of drug overdose deaths for young white adults, aged 25 to 34, increased 500 percent between 1999 and 2014.

Generally, alcoholism, drug dependency and suicide seem to be the proximate causes in the rising death rate. 


The early revelations about middle-aged deaths led many to speculate that the poor economy had led many people to give up on their futures, and to turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort.  It was compared to the epidemics of vodka addiction, drug abuse and early death that were observed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There may be something to this, but I find it hard to reconcile.  

For one thing, the chart at top showed a steady increase in deaths during the recovery from the recession of 2000, which seems at odds with the idea.

For another, Hispanic and African Americans by and large have had it much worse -- lower incomes, lower net worth, higher unemployment -- and do not seem to be dying at higher rates.  

I may have it wrong, but it seems to me that personal isolation has become a greater part of American life over the years.  Fewer of us participate in religion or study philosophy.  More of us live alone, and more of us are divorced. Social scientists say we have fewer friends than in the past and that we spend more time every year watching screens. 

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, wrote an influential book, "Man's Search for Meaning" that is read less often these days than it was in the last century.  He said this:  “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

Note:  One practical factor that surely figures into the increase in deaths is this: easy access to heroin.  Let's discuss that tomorrow.

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