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White Americans Are Dying Younger as Drug and Alcohol Abuse Rises

Posted on – April 20, 2016 By Sabrina Tavernise

Oxycodone pills

Oxycodone pills are sometimes prescribed for patients with chronic pain. Drug overdoses are reducing average lifespans for the white population as a whole. – John Moore/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Life expectancy declined slightly for white Americans in 2014, according to new federal data, a troubling sign that distress among younger and middle-age whites who are dying at ever-higher rates from drug overdoses is lowering average life spans for the white population as a whole.

The new federal data, drawn from all deaths recorded in the country in 2014, showed that life expectancy for whites dropped to 78.8 years in 2014 from 78.9 in 2013. Men and women had declines, but because of statistical rounding, the decline did not appear as sharp among men.

Life expectancy for women fell to 81.1 in 2014 from 81.2 in 2013. The average life span for men also fell, but not enough to sink below 76.5 years, their life expectancy in 2013.

“The increase in death in this segment of the population was great enough to affect life expectancy at birth for the whole group,” said Elizabeth Arias, the statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics who analyzed the data, referring to whites from their mid-20s to their mid-50s. “That is very unusual.”

Dr. Arias, who is preparing a larger study of mortality trends over the past 15 years, said drug overdoses, liver disease and suicide were the main drivers of the gloomy trends among whites in recent years, a pattern also found by other researchers.

Life expectancy for whites had been rising for decades, but it has stagnated in recent years. It inched up in 2010 and 2011, and was flat in 2012 and 2013.

Recent research has documented surprising increases in death rates among less educated whites. Last year, a paper by Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented rising death rates among middle-age white Americans, particularly those with no more than a high school education. Other research has found rising rates among younger whites.

The pattern had puzzled demographers, but the recent analyses have pointed to suffering and anxiety among working-class whites.

In contrast, life expectancy for blacks rose to 75.6 in 2014 from 75.5 in the previous year. Blacks have gained more than a year of life expectancy since 2008. Black men had the biggest increase of all the groups in 2014, rising to 72.2 from 71.8.

For Hispanics, life expectancy jumped to 81.8 in 2014 from 81.6 in 2013. Hispanic women had even more pronounced gains, with life expectancy rising to 84 years from 83.8 in 2013. Overall, Hispanics, like blacks, have gained one year of life expectancy since 2008.

The overall life expectancy for Americans, 78.8, remained unchanged.

The last time life expectancy for whites dropped was in 2005, around the time of a particularly severe flu season, though it is not clear that flu caused the decline.

The most recent dip before that was in 1993, around the time of the AIDS epidemic, when there was a decline in life expectancy for the entire United States population. The drop was steepest among blacks, whose life expectancy dropped to 69.2 from 69.6 in one year.

Typically, most of the deaths in the country occur among people in their 60s or older. Deaths in people who are younger or middle age are relatively rare and do not usually affect overall life expectancy. A surge in death rates at those ages is sometimes analogous to a generation of men going to war or a wave of mothers’ deaths in childbirth.

“There is the expectation that life expectancy will go up every year, and that has been realized just about every year over the past century,” said Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania.

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