"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." -- Henry David Thoreau

By some measures, life has been getting better for ethnic minorities, gays, and others who have long felt marginalized in American society. Meanwhile, by one crucial measure, the death rate, life has been getting worse (or at least shorter) for middle-aged whites.

Simply put, middle-aged whites are dying at a higher rate each year, primarily from suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, and liver disease. It's most evident in those whose education did not extend beyond high school but is also seen in those with college degrees.

The rising tide of deaths from these causes -- which are all, to some extent, self-inflicted -- are offsetting declines in deaths from cancer and the other diseases that afflict the middle-aged. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and are based on studies covering the years from 1999 to 2013.

Death rates generally fell for blacks and Hispanics during the same period. Middle-aged blacks were dying at the rate of 581 per 100,000 compared with 415 for whites during the study period. Meanwhile, middle-aged Hispanics were dying at a much lower rate, 262 per 100,000.

Not only are whites dying sooner, those who survive to old age may be in worse health than the current generation of seniors, which would be bad news for the already stressed Medicare and Medicaid systems.

Highly unusual

The trend is highly unusual and is almost never seen in advanced societies except in times or war or epidemic, according to the study authors, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, economics professors at Princeton.

The study came about after the researchers, who are husband and wife, came at the subject from different directions. Dr. Deaton was looking at statistics on suicide and happiness while Dr. Case was interested in the role of chronic pain.

It has been known for quite some time that the suicide rate for middle-aged Americans is rising, but it wasn't until Drs. Case and Deaton combined statistics from various sources that they found the startling rise in the death rate for whites.

While suicide is a factor in the rising mortality rate, drug abuse and alcohol -- despair, in other words -- complete the equation for those with a high school education or less. 

Various factors seem to play a role, including a higher rate of opiod prescriptions for whites and a high rate of chronic joint pain and sciatica. But financial pessimism and fear of the future are also contributing, Case and Deaton suggested.

They noted that in the period covered by the study, the inflation-adjusted income for a household headed by a person with no more than a high school education fell 19 percent. 

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