Why Are Middle-Aged White Americans Dying At Such a High Rate?

WASHINGTON — While the overall death rate has been falling in the U.S. for decades, a new study finds that there was a significant mortality rate increase among middle-aged white men and women between 1999 and 2013.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says if mortality rates had continued to decline at the previous rate (seen between 1979 and 1998), 500,000 deaths would have been avoided between 1999 and 2013.

By comparison, the U.S. AIDS epidemic is thought to have claimed about 650,000 American lives since 1981.

The mortality trend among middle aged Americans was also unique to the U.S. No other rich country saw a similar turnaround, the study says.

From 1978 to 1998, the U.S. mortality rate for whites between the ages of 45 and 54 fell by two percent per year on average, which matched the average rate of decline in France, Germany, the UK, Canada, Australia, Sweden and the average over all other industrialized countries.

After 1998, other rich countries’ mortality rates continued to decline annually, while mortality rates for that group rose by .5 percent per year in the U.S.

“Self-reported declines in health, mental health, and ability to conduct activities of daily living, and increases in chronic pain and inability to work, as well as clinically measured deteriorations in liver function, all point to growing distress in this population,” according to the study’s abstract.

Possibly linked to the mortality rate are increased reports of declining mental and physical health, risk for heavy drinking and the increased availability of opioid prescriptions for pain that began in the late 1990s, the study says.

Suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis are among the causes of death for that age group that have increased since 1998.

“A serious concern is that those currently in midlife will age into Medicare in worse health than the currently elderly,” the study warns.

“This is not automatic… However, addictions are hard to treat and pain is hard to control, so those currently in midlife may be a ‘lost generation’ whose future is less bright than those who preceded them.”

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