An increasing number of Americans are dying in the prime of their lives, a trend not observed in other wealthy nations, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
These “excess deaths” — that is, people who die years and even decades before they’re expected to, tend to be clustered in the nation’s Rust Belt, where economies once boomed with a thriving steel industry, but have been in decline since the 1970s.
“That’s when the U.S. began losing pace with other countries,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, lead author of the new report and the director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“This is a distinctly American phenomenon,” he added.
Woolf’s study analyzed nearly 60 years of data, from 1959 through 2017, collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Life expectancy in America increased steadily from the late 1950s through 2014, when it peaked at 78.9 years.
It then declined for the next three years, falling to 78.6 years in 2017.
Researchers attribute that downturn to a growing number of people dying well before they should, between the ages of 25 and 64.
Major causes of death in this age group are from drug overdoses, particularly opioids, alcohol and suicides.
Fatal drug overdoses increased significantly in the past two decades, most notably among people ages 55 to 64.
The study found that overdose death rates rose from 2.3 deaths per 100,000 people in that age group in 1999, to 23.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 — an increase of more than 900 percent.
But midlife mortality rates have also increased for 35 other causes of death, especially those related to chronic health problems such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.
The wide range of causes of death suggests that the root of the problem is deep and complicated.
The largest increases in excess deaths for middle-aged adults were found in the Ohio Valley region, with one-third of the country’s deaths reported in just four states: Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The study authors say that the economic downturns that began in those states during the 1970s and the 1980s fueled chronic stress among their citizens, and are now manifested in growing midlife death rates.