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Death Rates of Middle-Aged : Overdose Deaths, Suicides Increasing

The rate of death among Caucasian Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 has increased significantly in the past 15 years, a change that has not occurred in other industrialized countries, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What is driving this change? Higher rates of death caused by:

  • Suicide
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Chronic liver disease
  • Drug and alcohol overdose

In short, drug- and alcohol-related problems have caused increasing rates of early death among America’s white middle class between 1999 and 2013, and researchers are working hard to understand why.

Anne Case was an author on the study. She said:

We sort of fell off our chairs when we saw that in the data, because that’s just not what’s happening elsewhere.

Contributing Factors

Though the study did not provide an in-depth exploration of what was underlying the increased use of drugs and alcohol in this age group, some contributing factors may have been identified, including:

  • Increased reporting of psychological distress
  • Increased reporting of physical pain
  • Higher rates of alcohol poisoning
  • Increased availability of prescription painkillers (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone)

It is significant that the researchers also found that death rates among black and Hispanic Americans declined during the same period. Additionally, researchers found that white, middle-class Americans with a high school degree or less experienced the greatest increase in death rates: up as much as 22 percent during the 15-year study.

Aaron White is the senior scientific advisor to the director of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). He said that the results of the study were “very alarming” and said: “Now there are more people 45 to 54 dying from alcohol and drug poisonings than from lung cancer.”

Stress and Substance Abuse

There are likely a number of issues driving the increased rates of substance abuse among white Americans. Some suggest that the changing definition of the “American dream” may be among those issues. For example, it was once thought that you could simply work an entry-level job and that hard work and persistence would eventually yield a pay off: promotions, raises, home ownership, increasingly nicer cars and clothes, and college tuition for kids. Unfortunately, many families have not found that to be the case. Instead of looking forward to retirement, these families are instead unsure when or if they will be able to stop working.

Another issue that commonly plagues this age group is divorce and its aftermath. A hugely stressful undertaking, it can cause tough emotional and financial consequences that ripple through the following decade, if not longer. Strained relationships with children and the ex, and losing half – or more – of what one has worked for are difficult. Many also find themselves unexpectedly back on the dating scene, often defined by bars and clubs where alcohol and drug use is prevalent.

If substance abuse or addiction was an issue prior to the development of financial strain or divorce, use of drugs and alcohol may increase significantly as stressors rise, which in turn can lead to addiction as well as serious – and even deadly – health problems caused by chronic substance abuse.

Seeing the Signs

Unfortunately, many who abuse drugs and alcohol, or who begin to develop a significant issue with substance abuse or addiction during middle age, may be “functional addicts.” That is, they may appear to have everything together to objective observers but are actually struggling.

Signs of those living with a functional addiction may include:

  • People may be maintaining employment but just barely. They may often call in sick, argue with coworkers, or experience issues at work due to their ongoing use of substances. Some may even use drugs or alcohol while at work.
  • People living with a functional addiction will usually lie about the nature of their habit. Some pretend that they are not drinking or using drugs at all or will minimize their use if asked. Others hide alcohol around the house or office so they can imbibe in secret.
  • In some cases, people who are functioning despite an active addiction will use drugs with the goal of increasing productivity. For example, it is not uncommon to see people who are gainfully employed but struggling with an addiction to stimulant drugs since these drugs can often improve energy and focus initially. These people may seem to be overachievers at work despite being moody and difficult to deal with.
  • Almost everyone living in an active addiction, including those people who are functioning despite addiction, struggles with low self-esteem and a poor sense of self-worth. This may be due to trauma, physical or emotional abuse, or co-occurring mental health issues. Whatever the cause, it is important that that issue be addressed proactively in recovery if abstinence is to be a long-term choice.

Treatment Works

Any sign of suicidal thoughts or behaviors should be addressed in treatment immediately. Depression, grief disorder, and other mood disorders can be effectively addressed through treatment that includes therapy as well as medication.

If substance abuse or addiction is an ongoing issue as well, then treatment can help provide the person with:

  • Safe medical detox assistance if necessary
  • Relapse prevention tools
  • A network of social support in recovery
  • Positive coping mechanisms for stress
  • Intensive therapeutic intervention
  • Family education and support
  • Long-term aftercare treatment and support
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About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Sunrise House is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More