Middle-aged white people without a college degree are dying faster than other Americans, according to researchers from Princeton University.
Thanks to medical advances and preventative measures, overall death rates in the United States have fallen in the last century. However, death rates for white people between the ages of 45 and 54 have increased by one-half a percent per year since 1998, said Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University. Deaton was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace for economics last month.
Case and Deaton believe drug and alcohol overdoses, as well as suicide, are behind the rise in midlife mortality.
“Midlife increases in suicides and drug poisonings have been previously noted,” the researchers wrote. “However, that these upward trends were persistent and large enough to drive up all-cause midlife mortality has, to our knowledge, been overlooked.”
People in this age group were more likely to report an increase in poor health as well as an increase in pain, including neck pain, facial pain, chronic joint pain, and sciatica.
The study found the hardest hit were those without a college degree. Death rates increased more than 20 percent from 1999 and 2013 for middle-aged people without a college education, while they actually fell for those who did earn a college degree.
Death rates for whites with only a high school diploma are the highest of any race or ethnic group at 736 per 100,000. That could suggest that setbacks at this stage of life — such as job loss or health concerns — could prove particularly difficult for this group of Americans.
“After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than their parents were,” the researchers wrote.
No other rich countries have experienced a similar trend, according to study. Since 1998, mortality rates in developed countries continued to drop by 2 percent each year while US white non-Hispanic mortality rose by half a percent a year.
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The death rate for middle-aged blacks and Hispanics dropped during this same period and so did death rates for younger and older people across all race and ethnic groups.
However, while white death rates — including those with and without a college education — are up, they’re still not as high as black death rates. There are about 415 deaths for every 100,000 white people in the 45-to-54 age group. For blacks, the rate is 581 for every 100,000.
Case and Deaton warn that today’s middle-aged Americans could age into Medicare in worse health than the nation’s current elderly, putting an increased strain on the American health care system.
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