Death rates have been decreasing in the US, but one group has been bucking the trend in the past 15 years. While rates have continued to fall for other racial groups in the US, and for people in other rich countries, mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have been rising since 1998.
Those with a lower level of education were most affected. The findings, detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show death rates for white Americans aged 45-54 with less than a college education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. The mortality rates for white Americans aged 35-44 stopped falling in 2000; for 55-to-59-year-old, mortality rates fell to 0.5% a year.
Researchers suggest if falling mortality rates had continued past 1998, 500,000 more middle-aged white Americans would be alive today—a death toll comparable to to lives lost in the US AIDS epidemic from 1981 through to this year.
Mortality rates for white Americans are still comparatively better than for blacks and no-one really knows why. While middle-aged black Americans have a higher death rate—581 per 100,000—than their white counterparts, that number has been gradually declining over the years.
As to why more middle-aged white Americans are dying, the researchers suggest increasing levels of suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, chronic liver diseases, and cirrhosis are important contributing factors.