Death Rates of Working-Age Americans Rising

December 12, 2019

Study reveals what U.S. regions are most affected, their causes of death, and why.

Death rates among working-age Americans continue to climb, leading to a decrease in U.S. life expectancy that is severely impacting certain regions of the country, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) study Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017.

Data was collected from the U.S. Mortality Database and Centers for Disease Control Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research to examine the causes of death and which regions and states have been most affected.

Specifically, these deaths are affecting Americans 25 to 64 years old who are from “rust belt” and Appalachia states, which can be found mostly in the Midwest and Eastern regions of the U.S., the report says.

These deaths have fueled a decline in U.S. life expectancy since 2014 and are linked to several major causes of death.

Related: The 10 Worst Cancer Death Rates by State

Today, working-age adults are now more likely to die before 65 years old by drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides, and an array of organ system diseases, compared to the 1990s.

“Working-age Americans are more likely to die in the prime of their lives,” says Steven Woolf, MD, director emeritus of the VCU Center on Society and Health. “For employers, this means that their workforce is dying prematurely, impacting the U.S. economy. More importantly, this trend means that children are losing their parents and our children are destined to live shorter lives than us.”

The study provides a better understanding of these root causes of death, including the role of drugs, obesity, the healthcare system, and the economy. However, the impact of rising death rates is far-reaching from a public health perspective, as well as for the country’s future, Woolf says.

In addition, the study found some of the largest increases in working-age deaths since 2010 occurred amongst women and adults without a high school diploma.

Regions experiencing the largest increases in mortality are those of the industrial Midwest and other regions that have been heavily affected by changes in the economy, like job losses in manufacturing, since the 1980s. The study names socioeconomic pressures and unstable employment among a couple of possible explanations for increased working-age deaths in those areas, also.

However, more specifically, Woolf and co-author Heidi Schoomaker, found life expectancy decreased in some regions, such as northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont) and the Ohio Valley (Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), but increased along the Pacific coast, the report says.

The four Ohio Valley states are responsible for one-third of excess deaths-the number of deaths greater than the number of deaths projected by U.S. mortality rates-since 2010.

Eight of the 10 states with the largest number of excess deaths for ages 25 to 64 were in the Rust Belt or Appalachia and the 13 Appalachian states accounted for half of excess deaths, Woolf says.

It’s been found the trend of increasing mortality goes back decades.

U.S. life expectancy lost pace with other wealthy countries in the 1980s, stopped increasing in 2011 and has been falling since 2014, Woolf adds.

“The notion that U.S. death rates are increasing for working-age adults is particularly disturbing because it is not happening like this in other countries,” he says. “This is a distinctly American phenomenon.”