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Is America losing the war on misery?

Deaths of despair

November 28, 2019 - 11:11am

“Modernity is a deal”, wrote Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus. “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.”

As a new study shows, rising numbers of Americans in the prime of adult life are dying ‘deaths of despair’ through drug or alcohol abuse, obesity, hypertensive disorders or suicide. The rise in such deaths is now significant enough to have reversed a long-term increase in American life expectancy, which has declined for three consecutive years.

The report examined life expectancy data over the period from 1959-2016 and more recent data covering death rates for specific causes, showing that while overall life expectancy rose by nearly 10 years in the period from 1959 to 2016, life expectancy since 2014 declined for three years in a row.

The change is a result of increased mortality rates among people aged 25-64. The relative increase in mortality rates was most noticeable among younger adults in the 25-34 bracket, whose mortality rate in the period 2010-2017 rose 29%. The mortality rate has also increased more for men than for women.

The report indicates that rising rates of mortality in young and mid-life adults did not show up in the overall statistics straight away because they were offset by improvements in mortality rates for other major causes of death such as car accidents, cancer and HIV.

But, beginning in the 1990s, the death rates for drug overdose, suicide and alcoholic liver disease are now rising fast enough to offset these gains. These increases are now significant enough that overall life expectancy in the USA has begun to decline.

The picture this data suggests is of a country that is overall winning the war on disease and physical danger but, increasingly, losing a parallel war on misery. If, as in Harari’s formulation, modernity traded meaning for power, it is tempting to suggest that rising numbers of American adults are finding themselves without a share of power sufficient to make up for what has been lost.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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