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As Drug and Alcohol Abuse Rises White Americans Are Dying Younger
The life expectancy of middle-aged and younger White Americans has slightly declined for the first time in decades, and scientists are blaming substance abuse as a main cause.
Other driving factors include alcohol-related liver disease and suicides, says the National Center for Health Statistics.
The reduction in life expectancy for white Americans is being blamed on the “suffering and anxiety” among working-class whites brought about by the 2007 recession and massive unemployment. The concurrent rise in drug and alcohol abuse and suicides is consistent with the tensions resulting from the economic collapse.
The drop in life spans occurred in 2014, following a leveling-off that began in 2010. Before that, studies showed a consistent increase in life spans for average white Americans.
Life expectancy for white Americans dropped to 78.8 years in 2014 from 78.9 in 2013. Men and women had declines, but it was worse among women. From 2013 to 2014, the life expectancy for non-Hispanic white women dropped about a month, from 81.2 years to 81.1. The average life span for men, 76.5 years in 2013, fell a tiny percentage in 2014, but when the stats were rounded up to tenths, it remained the same.
The reduction of only a tenth of a year in a population’s life span may seem insignificant. But it is meaningful to the scientists who study populations. As an analogy, think of your baby toe – perhaps insignificant in the larger scheme of things. But how would you react if, one morning, it just fell off? It would be alarming to say the least. And so is a small decline in a population’s life expectancy.
Blacks and Hispanics enjoying increased life spans
Looking at the whole country, the average, overall life expectancy for all Americans remained unchanged at 78.8. But blacks and Hispanics, on the other hand, are enjoying increased life spans compared to younger and middle-aged White Americans.
Black American life spans rose to 75.6 years in 2014 from 75.5 in 2013. Black men showed the greatest increase in 2014, rising to 72.2 from 71.8. Overall, blacks are living a year longer than in 2008.
Hispanics also gained a year since 2008, and life expectancy rose from 81.6 in 2013 to 81.8 in 2014. Hispanic women gained the most, rising from 83.8 in 2013 to 84 years in 2014.
Drug overdoses, liver disease and suicide the main drivers
But the decline in life spans for White Americans from their mid-20s to their mid-50s was surprising to Dr. Elizabeth Arias, the statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics who analyzed the data.
“The increase in death in this segment of the population was great enough to affect life expectancy at birth for the whole group,” Dr. Arias said in The New York Times. “That is very unusual.”
Dr. Arias said drug overdoses, liver disease and suicide were the main drivers of “the gloomy trends” among whites in recent years. Similar findings have been published in other studies, but Arias is preparing a larger study of mortality trends that will cover the past 15 years in more detail.
Last October, researchers at the American Cancer Society announced that a study of the average death rates (as opposed to life expectancies) showed a “disturbing development” in the period from 2010 to 2013 – a flattening of the statistics which had been declining since 1969. That study supports the life-expectancy findings of Dr. Arias at the National Center for Health Statistics.
Other studies suggested obesity as a cause
“Over the 44-year period of study,” the Times said, “death rates dropped by about 43 percent…and mortality rates for various ailments also fell: by 77 percent for stroke, by 68 percent for heart disease, by 18 percent for cancer and by 17 percent for diabetes. But the rate of decline in death rates had slowed in the most recent period for some obesity-related ailments – heart disease, stroke and diabetes – a pattern that some experts said supported the theory that obesity was a driver.”
The Times report said that Americans had been living “drastically longer” than in the 1960s, and the only significant slow-down was seen during the H.I.V. epidemic in the 1990s.
John G. Haaga, the acting director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging, said he believes the U.S. has “a lot of room for improvement compared to other developed nations. We’ve got a long way to go before we could catch up with Canada, Germany or France.”
Women faring worse with substance abuse
Perhaps the most significant news was that women are more at risk than men.
The life expectancy for non-Hispanic white women dropped about a month, from 81.2 years to 81.1.
This is the first time that the life span of white American women has ever dropped in the 100 years since federal agencies started tracking these statistics. And we’re the only developed country in the West where it’s happened.
And the statistics don’t lie – drugs and alcohol are playing a big role. Women are more likely than men to seek prescriptions for anxiety and emotional upsets, usually the anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines. Women are also more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain, and to seek prescriptions for painkillers.
Not only do women use higher doses than men, on average they tend to take them for longer periods of time. And although they’re less likely to become addicted than men, it happens more quickly, and with worse consequences, when they do. It should be mentioned that the same is true for alcohol.
The good news – and this really counts – is that the federal and many state governments are responding with serious money and programs to help combat the problem. The need for expanded treatment options is acknowledged and resources are being mobilized. We can turn this around, and all indications are that we will.
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