For young, less educated whites, the disease of despair is hurting lifespan

For young white Americans, especially those with less education, drug overdoses and suicides are spiking death rates. The trend is nearly unprecedented and looks as grim to public health experts as if the nation were in the grips of a new, fatal infectious disease outbreak akin to the HIV-AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

That’s the startling finding of the New York Times after the paper analyzed nearly 60 million death certificates collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1990 to 2014.

The Times blames the overdoses, and to some extent the suicides, too, on the plague of drug abuse that has hit more suburban and rural areas of the country especially hard. Public health and drug abuse experts have sounded alarms for some time now about the rising toll of addictive, opioid, prescription painkillers and heroin. Although physicians seem reluctant to prescribe these meds to minority patients, thereby sparing them, their abuse by young whites is fueling their sharply increasing death rates, says the Times, which reports:

In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites ages 25 to 34 was five times its level in 1999, and the rate for 35- to 44-year-old whites tripled during that period. The numbers cover both illegal and prescription drugs. …Rising rates of overdose deaths and suicide appear to have erased the benefits from advances in medical treatment for most age groups of whites.

The surge in the death rate for young, less educated whites is a disheartening discovery: As I’ve written before, it follows on the findings of a Nobel laureate and his wife of big increases in the death rates for middle-aged whites, especially those who are poorer and who had less schooling. The two scholars found middle-aged whites’ life expectancy diving due to suicide and its slower versions, alcohol and drug abuse. The rise in whites’ death rates, as I’ve written, also is narrowing gaps in life expectancy rates between white and black Americans.

The Times to its credit duly notes that, although the death rates are soaring, the number of young whites dying tallies in the thousands:

Not many young people die of any cause. In 2014, there were about 29,000 deaths out of a population of about 25 million whites in the 25-to-34 age group. That number had steadily increased since 2004, rising by about 5,500 — about 24 percent — while the population of the group as a whole rose only 5 percent. In 2004, there were 2,888 deaths from overdoses in that group; in 2014, the number totaled 7,558

Just by comparison, other analyses show that in 2010, 7,000 Americans of all races and ages 15 to 24, were lost to motor vehicle-related deaths, and, in that same year, gun-related deaths claimed slightly more than 6,000 youths.

That said, I’ve written a lot about the severity of our national drug abuse epidemic, particularly when it comes to prescription medications and what doctors, hospitals, and the medical community must do to help those in real pain better manage their conditions, and to keep powerful, dangerous, and addictive medications out of the wrong hands. Although it’s encouraging to see that the presidential candidates have spoken out on the issue, including discussing their family woes and calling for the end to the stigma surrounding drug addiction, we need even greater, effective, smart, and cost-prudent ways to attack a burgeoning health care challenge that’s so tragically afflicting a growing segment of Americans.

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