Numbers Show Increasing Death Rates For Middle-Aged White Idahoans

Nov 12, 2015

A study by a Nobel Prize-winning economist made national headlines last week for saying middle-aged white Americans are dying at increasing rates while all other age and race groups have declining death rates. KBSX asked Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare to analyze the numbers for Idaho. The results show that death rates for white Idaho residents between 45 and 54 years of age have increased through the first decade and a half of the 21st century.

The death rate for non-Hispanic white Idahoans went from 325.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 402.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. That’s the only demographic to see a statistically significant increase, according to Health and Welfare. Multiple groups had statistically significant decreases in death rates: whites 65-74, whites 75-84, whites 85 + and Hispanics under 25. Despite decreases for three age groups of white Idahoans, the increase for the 45-54 year olds was enough to make the state’s total death rate for the white population increase significantly.

Race And Death Rates

Idaho Hispanics have lower overall death rates in every age group than non-Hispanic whites. Health and Welfare did not analyze death rates for Idahoans in race or ethnic groups other than non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics because the populations in the state are too small for good statistical analysis. For example, in 2013 fewer than five black Idaho residents died.

What We Don’t Know

In their national study, Princeton’s Anne Case and Angus Deaton show that the rising death rates are happening primarily among 45-54-year-old whites who do not have college educations. However, their increase is enough to significantly raise the rate for the entire cohort regardless of education or socioeconomic standing. But Pamela Harder, research analyst supervisor for Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare says she does not have the data necessary to calculate death rates by education level in Idaho.

Dying of Despair

The causes of the raising mortality have prompted some news outlets to make the claim that middle-aged white Americans are dying of despair. Case and Deaton put it less melodramatically.

“This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.... Rising midlife mortality rates of white non-Hispanics were paralleled by increases in midlife morbidity. Self-reported declines in health, mental health, and ability to conduct activities of daily living, and increases in chronic pain and inability to work, as well as clinically measured deteriorations in liver function, all point to growing distress in this population.” – Case and Deaton

In Idaho, death rates by drug and alcohol poisoning for 45-54-year-old whites more than doubled between 1999 and 2013, as did rates of death by suicide. Death from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, which are often associated with alcohol abuse, nearly doubled in that time.  

Idaho’s increase in death by drug and alcohol poisoning is not as dramatic as the national trend Case and Deaton identify, but Idaho’s increase in suicide and death from liver disease in this demographic are bigger than the nation as a whole.

In 2013 Idaho’s death rate for middle-aged drug or alcohol poisoning was a little lower than the national numbers Case and Deaton cite. Liver disease-caused death was a little higher in Idaho and suicide was much higher.

According to Case and Deaton, although the epidemic of pain, suicide and drug overdoses preceded the financial crisis, they suggest the rising death rates for middle-aged whites might be tied to economic insecurity. Some of the factors they discuss are things KBSX and others have reported on extensively as major problems in Idaho, such as stagnant wages and financial insecurity for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.  

“After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education…. The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk… Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on US workers...” – Case and Deaton

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