As an advocate on aging and health issues, I have been especially interested and proud of the gains the United States has made in longevity. Men and women are living much longer than ever before. Successes in public health such as better medicines for heart disease as well as a huge reduction in smoking have been key to this change as well as the general infrastructure of support for prevention, aging and health services.
Now, though comes a wake up call about changes afoot that have nothing to do with our programs and services for older Americans. More low income white Americans are not even making it to old age. There is a very noticeable increase in middle age deaths of whites without a college education. There has been no corresponding increase in death rates for African Americans, Hispanics or other groups.
What is going on? It is not about cancer or heart disease or diabetes. Deaths from suicide, alcoholism and substance abuse are the reasons according to the study by two Princeton researchers reported last week. The increase in the death rates for these middle age whites increased 22% or at a rate only comparable in recent history to the AIDS epidemic.
The persons in this age group with only a high school education were reporting higher levels of pain as they aged which could be related to increases in obesity and a poor diet. They also are bigger users of opioid pain medicines, more than African-Americans and Hispanics, the report noted. This could explain why those groups did not have a similar increase in middle age deaths. African American deaths in middle age are still higher than Whites but the gap is closing and Hispanics are lower than both.
The report also said that the income of this group of people had dropped by 19% in recent years. This change is another result of the decline of the middle class and the loss of manufacturing jobs in smaller towns. I was born in the village of Massena and last week, Alcoa, the major employer where three generations of my family worked, announced it is closing a large part of its operations and laying off nearly 500 people.
It is heartbreaking to hear this news but then to see what the impact could be in terms of the lives of those who want to stay in the communities they grew up in.
So, sadly we have people who don’t even make it to older age. We need to think about all of this as we look at the need for better jobs and raising the minimum wage. Yes, that’s true, because if the jobs that are left are as cashiers and greeters at chain stores or short order cooks at restaurant chains then people are going to need a livable wage to survive and have a better quality of life. Clearly, these new findings reveal a growing segment of the population with low incomes that is very unfulfilled, depressed and suicidal. It is imperative that we develop community responses to address all the economic, social, cultural and even spiritual issues that are responsible for these changes in society.