Suicide and its slower version (death from alcohol and drug abuse) appear to be the drivers behind a rising tide of deaths and worsening life expectancy in a specific and startling niche: middle-aged white Americans who lack college educations.
Other demographic groups, in the U.S. and other rich countries, are doing nicely in life expectancy, with gradually declining death rates over the last century and continuing now. Only white Americans between ages 45 and 54 are showing a death trend in the wrong direction, and it shows up only in those who have only high school or less education.
The study comes from a husband-wife economist team at Princeton, Angus Deaton (who won the Nobel economics prize last month) and Anne Case.
According to a story about their work published in the New York Times, the researchers found a correlation with other modern trends:
- Wages moving in the wrong direction;
- Chronic pain and general poor health reported much more frequently;
- Inability to work;
- Difficulty socializing.
It all adds up to a lot of anger and despair driving self-destructive behavior on such a wide scale that it’s showing up in big demographic trends. According to Dr. Deaton, there hasn’t been any trend like this since the HIV/AIDS death epidemic of the 1980s.
But unlike HIV, this is a trend that will be cured not by medicine but by social policies that bring back hope to ordinary people’s lives.