What is killing middle-aged white men? Despair


We take it for granted that, in scientifically advanced countries, the death rate will decline.  But since 1999, there has been a dramatic increase in the death rate among non-Hispanic American white men aged 45 to 54, especially those without education beyond high school.

No such increase occurs among middle-aged white people in other countries or among other American ethnic groups.  Although the death rate for African-Americans is higher, it is not increasing, and, as the chart shows, the death rate for middle-aged Hispanic Americans (USH) is decreasing.

A Princeton University study indicates that the main reasons for the increased death rate are an increase in alcohol-related disease (liver disease), in drug overdoses (heroin and opioids) and in suicide—all diseases associated with depression and despair.

[Note added 11/13/2015: Some experts say the increase is primarily among middle-aged white women.]


Click to enlarge.

African Americans are reportedly more optimistic about the future than white Americans.

It’s true that the economic outlook for white working people has worsened, especially for those with no education beyond high school, during the last 15 years.

However, wages and incomes of black people are not improving either, and they are not gaining on whites.

So why would Anglo white people be more depressed about their circumstances than blacks?

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

There’s an old phrase about “been down so long that down looks like up to me.”  Maybe that’s how black people see things.  Maybe whites on average have higher expectations and their sense of betrayal at their current economic plight therefore is greater.

I think that sense of despair is driving support for Donald Trump and Ben Carson.  I think many white working men see the Republicans as the party of Wall Street and the Democrats as a party of do-gooders who are concerned about the woes of everyone in the world except white working people.  So they feel they have nothing to lose by taking a chance on an outsider who seems to be on their side.


A group of middle-aged whites in the U.S. is dying at a startling rate by Lenny Bernstein and Joel Achenbach for The Washington Post.

The Public Mood: White Malaise But Optimism Among Blacks, Hispanics by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of the Great Recession by Rakesh Kochhar and Richard Fry for Pew Research Center.

How the rising death rate among middle-aged whites helps explain our political reality by Janell Ross for The Washington Post.


Update 11/5/2015

The death rate from depression-related causes (alcohol-related disease, drug abuse and suicide) is increasing for white American men between age 30 and 65, not just the group aged 45 to 54.  The difference is that deaths from these causes in the middle-aged group are increasing at such a rate as to cause an increase in that group’s overall death rate.

Whatever is going on hasn’t increased the depression-related death rate among senior citizens (over 65) or youth (under 30).

blog_mortality_age_group_0Kevin Drum of Mother Jones annotated the chart below to give his take on why middle-aged white American men may be so depressed.  Remember, the figures are for just the 45-54 age group.

blog_mortality_us_whites_0White American Men Without a College Degree Are Seriously Depressed These Days by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.   An interesting post, although he conflates data on depression-related deaths and on deaths in the 45-54 age group with the overall death rate.

Rising morbidity and mortality among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century by Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University.  This is the original paper from which the data and charts are taken.

I made numerous minor changes in the original post throughout yesterday and today for the sake of accuracy and clarity.


Update 11/6/2015

russian-male-life-expectancyThe Soviet Parallels of Fishtown’s Middle-Aged Male Mortality Crisis by Anatoly Karlin for The Unz Review.


Update 11/11/2015

The mortality increase is primarily among middle-aged white women.

The Urban Institute reported that the death rate per 100,000 people increased by 26.8 from 1999 to 2013 for white American women age 45 to 54, compared to 7.7 for white American men in that age group.

Overall, life expectancy for American women is falling behind women in other advanced nations, as the chart below shows.


To Understand Climbing Death Rates Among Whites, Look to Women of Childbearing Age by Laudan Aron, Lisa Debray, Elaine Waxman and Steven Martin for Health Affairs Blog.  (Hat tip to naked capitalism)

Other links—

Why are middle-aged whites dying? by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

The Wages of Whiteness by Paul Street for Counterpunch.

How Class Kills: A recent study showing rising mortality rates among middle-aged whites drives home the lethality of class inequality by A.W. Gaffney for Jacobin.

Update 11/12/2015

Decline and Fall of America’s Working Class by Noah Smith for Bloomberg View.

Update 11/13/2015

focus_group_3-1024x878Statistics expert Andrew Gelman wrote that, if you make an apples-to-apples comparison, it is white American women we should be most concerned about.

He said the study did not take into account the fact that the composition of the age 45 to 54 age group changed from 1999 to 2013.  There was a higher proportion of white Americans in their early 50s and fewer in their late 40s.  If you make an age-adjusted comparison—45-year-olds to 45-year-olds, 46-year-olds to 46-year-olds and so on—this is what the trend looks like over time.

The age-adjusted death rate for middle-aged white American men is in fact higher than in 1999, but Gelman said it is white American women age 52 and under that should be the main concern.

The Princeton study said death rates were rising fastest among white people with no education beyond high school.  Gelman pointed out that the composition of this group is different in 2013 from 1999 because an increasing proportion of Americans are going to college.


Death rates have been increasing for middle-aged white women, decreasing for men by Andrew Gelman for Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference and Social Science.

Correcting statistical biases in “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century”. We need to adjust for the increase in the average age of people in the 45-54 age category by Andrew Gelman for Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference and Social Science. (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist)

Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century by Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University.

More American White Women Are Dying Prematurely by Stephanie Mencimer for Mother Jones.

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One Response to “What is killing middle-aged white men? Despair”

  1. Charles Broming Says:

    Nice post. Assume for the moment that despair drives the increase in the mortality of this group. What then drives the increase in despair? Is it related to the rate of incarceration and obvious inequities in our “justice” system, wage stasis, income and wealth inequality, xenophobia, general helplessness (whatever that may be?)

    How do we work on changing that?


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