The Research Project, Week Thirty, New Jersey

Last month I took an afternoon to go visit a group of shut-ins who live out of town. I started with a visit to a 101 year old woman, followed by a visit to a 94 year old man and his wife, then it was off to see a 99 year old man. And I finished up the afternoon by going to visit a 97 year old man in the hospital.

According to some new research from New Jersey’s Princeton University, encountering a group of white people that old may soon be a thing of the past.  The report documents an alarming increase in the mortality rate of white, middle-aged Americans.

From 1978 to 1998 the mortality rate of this group of people steadily declined. Then in 1998 it changed. The death rate for white, middle-aged Americans started to increase.

The results of the study are published in the November 2 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century.” Anne Case, the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, and Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs and professor of economics and international affairs are the authors of the report.

They also found that the same pattern is not seen in other developed countries, nor is it seen among African Americans or Hispanics in the United States.

Those with a high school degree or less accounted for virtually the entire increase in mortality rates. This group’s overall mortality rate increased by 22 percent with a 400 percent increase in deaths caused by drug and alcohol poisoning and an 81 percent increase in death by suicide. Those with some college education saw little change in overall death rates, and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher actually saw death rates decline. There’s probably no better rationale for getting a good education.

The researchers point to many factors to account for the rise in mortality rates: drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, obesity and economic stress. Starting in the late 1990’s heroin became more accessible. Wage stagnation has been a problem for those with a high school education or less for decades. Deaton noted, “People on the bottom of the economic heap are being increasingly left out as inequality expands.”

Adding to all the bad news, the researchers found increases in chronic pain and mental illness among middle-aged whites over the last 15 years. Those who are currently middle-aged who do make it to the ranks of the elderly will do so in worse health than those who are currently elderly.

Obviously, since I am a middle-aged white person this research hits pretty close to home. It explains why health insurance companies are so eager to encourage people to adopt healthy habits these days.

Princeton University was chartered in 1746 as the College of New Jersey and kept that name until it reached university status in 1896 when it took the name of the city in which it is located.

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