This story sounds like it comes from Russia, but it doesn't. It comes from recent US mortality data analyzed by none other than Angus Deaton, the recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics and his wife, Anne Case, who is also a Professor of Economics at Princeton and a Faculty Fellow of Princeton's Office of Population Research. They just published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that death rates among US whites aged 45-54 has been on the rise (see their graph below). The major contributing causes of death are drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Rates went up faster for those with less than a college education, but the trend exists among all educational groups within the white non-Hispanic population--and for males and females.
The story was widely reported today. The most precise reporting was probably that by Lenny Bernstein and Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post, However, the demographer's favorite has to be the story in the NYTimes where the reporter, Gina Kolata (no, I didn't misspell her name) talked to demographers who had been cited in the research paper, including Sam Preston of the University of Pennsylvania (full disclosure--he was a member of my dissertation committee back when he was at Berkeley) and Ron Lee of the University of California, Berkeley:
“Wow,” said Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mortality trends and the health of populations, who was not involved in the research. “This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”
Dr. Deaton had but one parallel. “Only H.I.V./AIDS in contemporary times has done anything like this,” he said.
Ronald D. Lee, professor of economics, professor of demography and director of the Center on Economics and Demography of Aging at the University of California, Berkeley, was among those taken aback by what Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case discovered.This is an important story. Where there is this much fire there is also smoke, by which I mean that people are sicker and more likely to be disabled in middle age, even if they aren't dying. We aren't sure yet what explains these trends, but I think there will be a lot of discussion about this over the next days and months.
“Seldom have I felt as affected by a paper,” he said. “It seems so sad.”