Aging isn’t, as the saying goes, for the faint of heart. But it’s easiest for the most societally privileged members of our society, right? Meaning: we all know that life is cushiest for American middle-aged white men who allegedly have it all.
Not according to a new study by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case. Their analysis of health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that death rates for these dudes is growing—and not for the reasons people might assume. In other words, it’s not heart disease and diabetes that’s taking them out but issues resulting from good old-fashioned addiction. Yep, suicide, overdoses and liver disease are the culprits here.
They’re The Only Ones
The most notable aspect of this disturbing new finding is that these guys make up the only group where death rates are rising; in other age, racial and ethnic groups, the numbers are staying the same. And education matters here: it’s the men between the ages of 45 and 54 who didn’t attend college who are most impacted (an increase of 134 deaths per 100,000 people between 1999 and 2014).
Why these guys are struggling so much is a topic of some debate. The economy, and the fact that once seemingly stable careers have become anything but, is certainly a factor. The divorce rate and breakdown of families is thought to be a contributing factor. But I think the real issue is the rising opioid epidemic and the fact that there are more addicts out there than we acknowledge.
Painkillers are the Real Killers
It’s a fact: prescription drug abuse is the most dangerous public health crisis of our time. While this has been widely reported, last year, in a WTF move, the FDA approved an even stronger painkiller. And how is the medical community trying to remedy the prescription painkiller problem? By sending patients who complain about pain off to shady pain management clinics. In other words, they’re not.
The media hoopla around opiate abuse often centers on teenagers who are getting a hold of medication through their parents’ medicine cabinets or from doctors that get them hooked on the high before they turn to heroin. That’s why this new focus on the men we’ve always assumed are ruling the world is so surprising.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Chronic pain is on the rise and a middle-aged man is going to have an easier time convincing a doctor he needs the “necessary” meds than a shifty-eyed teenager. Sure, there are plenty of ways to combat physical pain that don’t require a prescription but we live in a quick-fix society where we’d rather swallow something and not think about it than consider making major life changes that would take time, mindfulness and effort.
I Say These Theories Are Bunk
But here’s the thing: while chronic pain, job loss and loneliness can certainly make anyone depressed, it’s my personal belief that people don’t kill themselves or become addicted to alcohol or drugs because of the circumstances of their lives. Suicide, I believe, is the result of mental illness—brain circuitry that convinces a person suffering from depression to find, as they say, a permanent solution to a temporary problem. If people killed themselves because of their personal or professional lives, then how can we explain the actions of Robin Williams or prolific producer Tony Scott?
I’m not someone who thinks that alcoholism is something we’re born with; I think alcoholics have a genetic predisposition that can either be exacerbated or diminished based on what happens to them during their formative years. This theory isn’t based on any studies but on my own experiences and those of the people I know in recovery. Addiction, in other words, isn’t something that I believe develops later in life because a person’s financial or personal future looks bleak but something that’s been inside all along and can spring into the stratosphere at any time and under any circumstances.
One could argue that this is chicken-and-eggish and who cares whether it was what happened during formative years or later-in-life experiences that brought on the issues that led to addiction and death. But I think it does matter. The brain isn’t fully formed until the mid-twenties so it’s what happens when we’re kids that determines our brain chemistry and to some degree who we’ll end up becoming (look, I’m a Freudian). My point is this: I think those estimates that only 10% of the population suffers from addiction are bogus. And if we begin to accept the fact that alcoholism is far more rampant than we say it is, we can start getting the men who are dying in record numbers the help they need before it’s too late.
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