Why are Middle-Aged White Americans Dying at a Higher Rate?

Thursday, November 05, 2015
(graphic: Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Middle-aged white people in America are experiencing climbing mortality rates, something not seen in populations of middle-aged blacks and Hispanics, according to a new study (pdf).


The cause of the higher death rates for this cohort may have something to do with being unhappy, based on data collected by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who last month won the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, and his wife Anne Case.


Using health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, Deaton and Case discovered the rising death rate for middle-aged whites is being driven by those with a high school education or less. From 1999 to 2014 the mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school diploma rose by 134 deaths per 100,000 people. They also found the cause of death was often suicide or health problems stemming from drug or alcohol abuse, rather than the usual reasons like heart disease or diabetes.


“Drugs and alcohol, and suicide . . . are clearly the proximate cause,” Deaton told The Washington Post. “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.”


“Wow,” Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mortality trends and the health of populations, who was not involved in the research, told The New York Times. “This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”


“Middle-aged blacks still have a higher mortality rate than whites — 581 per 100,000, compared with 415 for whites — but the gap is closing, and the rate for middle-aged Hispanics is far lower than for middle-aged whites at 262 per 100,000,” the Times’ Gina Kolata wrote.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds (by Gina Kolata, New York Times)

A Group of Middle-Aged Whites in the U.S. is Dying at a Startling Rate (by Lenny Bernstein and Joel Achenbach, Washington Post)

In Reversal, Death Rates Rise For Middle-Aged Whites (National Public Radio)

Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century (by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences) (pdf)

Why do Black Americans Live Shorter Lives than White Americans? Heart Disease, Cancer and Homicide (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

White Deaths Top Births for First Time Ever (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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