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Why are more middle-aged, white Americans dying?
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Nearly every demographic in America has experienced improvements in overall mortality rates with the exception of white, middle-aged Americans. They've been dying at higher rates for more than 15 years. But why? - photo by Lois M. Collins
Nearly every demographic in America has experienced improvements in overall mortality rates with the exception of white, middle-aged Americans. They've been dying at higher rates for more than 15 years.

White Americans between the ages of 44 and 64 are in the middle of a deadly "epidemic" that researchers from Princeton University blame on drugs, alcohol, suicide and liver disease, including cirrhosis.

"The same pattern is not seen in other rich countries, nor is it seen among African-Americans or Hispanics in the United States," according to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Angus Deaton, a professor of economics and international affairs who just won the 2015 Nobel Prize for economics, teamed with his wife and economics professor Anne Case to look at death data. They found the sharp increase in deaths in that age group, "comparable to the number of Americans who have died of AIDS," marks a reversal of decades of improvement in reducing mortality rates, they said in a written statement.

Death rates related to drugs, alcohol and suicides have been rising for middle-aged whites across education levels, they said, but the largest increases are among those who did not get a high school diploma. Drug and alcohol-related deaths increased fourfold, suicides up by 81 percent, liver disease and cirrhosis by 50 percent, they said.

They estimated that if the white mortality rate of 1998 had continued, 96,000 lives would have been saved between 1998 and 2013. If the rate had fallen at the rate it fell between 1978 and 1998, 488,500 deaths would have been avoided in those years. That's the number comparable to lives lost to AIDS in America.

Robert Anderson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The Associated Press that federal reports repeatedly note "worrisome increases" in suicides and drug overdose deaths. But the Princeton researchers have looked at the issue in a different way, he said.

"White Americans who are middle-aged were really doing worse," Case told AP. "And that's not news we were hearing."

Wow. This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households, Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies mortality trends and population health, told The New York Times. He was not part of the research.

"Mondays bleak findings could have far-reaching implications as the surviving members of this sizable segment of the population continue toward retirement and eligibility for Medicare," The Washington Post noted. It quoted experts who said "a sicker population that has been less able to prepare for the costs associated with old age will place an increasing burden on society and federal programs."

This is the first indicator that the plane has crashed, Jonathan Skinner, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, told The Washington Post. I dont know whats going on, but the plane has definitely crashed."

The study will change the game, driving new public health research efforts, Michael Eriksen, dean of Georgia State Universitys School of Public Health, told The Wall Street Journal. Substance abuse and alcoholism are taking their toll in a way people havent acknowledged, he said.