White middle-aged Americans are dying at an increasing rate, a new analysis of government data shows, a startling turnaround suggesting a rising toll of addiction and mental-health issues is reversing decades of gains in longevity.
Suicides, alcohol and drug overdoses, and death from chronic liver diseases largely drove the reversal, which occurred between 1999 and 2013, according to the analysispublished Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The turnaround occurred primarily among men and women between the ages of 45 and 54 with no more than a high-school education, but rates of those causes of death rose for wealthier middle-aged whites as well as whites in other age groups, according to the study.
By contrast, death rates declined for blacks and Hispanics in that age group over the same period, the study found.
No other rich country has experienced a similar turnaround in mortality rates, said the authors, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who are economics professors at Princeton University. Mr. Deaton won the Nobel Prize in economics this year for work that has involved improving the rigor of data on consumption, poverty, health and other measures that underpin public policy.
The findings reveal an under-examined public health crisis and illustrate tragic ways in which many people are responding to physical and mental pain, adversity and changing life situations, the researchers say. The behaviors they have turned to—drinking, drugs and suicide—are so widespread that they have offset declines in other major causes of death in midlife, such as lung cancer, according to the study.
“What we see here is a group that’s in quite a lot of distress,” said Ms. Case, an expert in development and health economics.