White rose wilting, shot with sepia filter, Mary Warner, September 2015.
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My Unscientific Observations About Rising Death Rates

White rose wilting, shot with sepia filter, Mary Warner, September 2015.
White rose wilting, shot with sepia filter, Mary Warner, September 2015.

Since my dad died 2 1/2 years ago, I’ve been paying especially close attention to the local obituaries. Perhaps because my dad died after having just turned 71, which seems much too young to my 48-year-old soul, I noticed that I was seeing an awful lot of deaths among the 40 to 60-year-old cohort, joining those who were over the age of 85. (It’s not uncommon to see people reach the high 90s or even become centenarians before Death takes them.) While my dad died at 71, I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m not seeing as many people dying between the ages of 70 and 85, which seemed more common a couple of decades ago.

I was getting so curious about this trend that I wondered about it aloud to friends and relatives and said, “There ought to be a study.” And then, miraculously, there was:

[The New York Times] Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds

Aha! I wasn’t just imagining that local people were dying at younger ages. (Our geographic area is mostly white, so my local newspaper was a good microcosm for showing this larger trend.)

Thing is, the study concludes that death rates among this group are rising because of “an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”

Maybe … but I’m not so sure that’s all there is to it. When I look through the obits, I’m seeing a lot of cancers, not suicides. (My dad died of esophageal cancer.) Perhaps the substance abuse is playing a big role in local deaths (who would ever admit that in an obit?), but the larger question is: What is causing the substance abuse?

Could it be a sense of helplessness due to wealth inequality, frustration with how the country or world is operating? A psychic pain or depression about something else that brings on substance abuse?

Could it be that people are dealing with chronic pain and the easiest way to cope is through alcohol use? I was at a Halloween party recently, standing in the kitchen chatting with a handful of people, and 3 of the 5 people present … all men under the age of 50 … had disintegrating backs, causing them constant, excruciating pain. Alcohol was the best, legal and most easily-obtained substance for giving them relief from the pain.

Could something in our environment be causing other health problems that lead to substance abuse? An imbalance in the microbiome? A major shift in the way our food is produced? Environmental pollutants? (I use the term “pollutants” rather than the word “chemicals” in deference to Tim Minchin, who points out that “everything is chemicals” in the lead-up to his song “The Fence.”)

As a middle-aged white American, the trend toward earlier deaths among my cohort is troubling, but it also raises more questions for me than it answers. Deeper investigation is needed, particularly if we want to reverse this trend. (We do, don’t we? Yes, please!)

While this news is a major downer, it is gratifying that a trend I unscientifically spotted has been verified.