Why are some whites dying earlier?

Story highlights

  • Report notes rising death rates among white Americans ages 45 to 54
  • Peggy Drexler: Death isn't the only problem impacting this group

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Middle-aged white Americans are dying at a record rate, new findings suggest. And the truth is, we really shouldn't be surprised.

According to research conducted by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case and published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, death rates among white Americans ages 45 to 54 are rising even as those among every other age, racial and ethnic group in the United States are in decline.
Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other sources, Deaton and Case concluded that the skyrocketing death rates they uncovered among less educated middle-aged white Americans, especially, are due to epidemic-levels of suicides and issues stemming from substance abuse, such as heroin and prescription drug overdoses and alcoholic liver disease.
    Death, of course, isn't the only problem impacting this group: Deaton and Case also found among the middle-aged white Americans that they studied that there were "concurrent declines in self-reported health, mental health, and ability to work," as well as increased reports of pain.
    Peggy Drexler
    But while the findings are something to pay attention to -- one expert on mortality trends commented to The New York Times that "This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households" -- these findings shouldn't come as a shock.
    Take the poor -- and declining -- resources available to those who suffer from mental illness, a field in which detection is low and treatment is inadequate. In a 2013 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 9.6 million adults reported having a serious mental illness, such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder.
    Yet according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the actual number of Americans who suffer from mental illness in any given year is several times that number -- some 61.5 million.
    Meanwhile, even among those who recognize their illness, a relative few seek care, even with the implementation of Obamacare. A 2014 CDC report found that just over a third of people with severe depression had been to see a mental health professional within the previous year.
    Some may choose not to. Others cannot afford it. A U.S. News & World Report investigation found that loopholes in the health care law -- including state-imposed limitations to Medicaid -- have kept people from requesting mental health services, leaving "about 5 million in a coverage gap."
    As a result, many people suffer without help.
    Some of these people will commit suicide. Others may turn to illegal drugs, which as various studies have proven -- including one from the British Medical Journal that looked at rising rates of heroin and cocaine use -- are easier than ever to get, and possibly more potent besides.
    Fast relief without the red tape -- why not? Or so the thinking goes. A study published last year in JAMA Psychiatry reported that 90% of first-time heroin users are white. What's more, recent studies looking at an increase in the rate of suicide among young people living in rural areas likely has application among adults: Youths in rural, often largely white, parts of the country on the whole have more guns, fewer doctors, and experience more isolation than their urban contemporaries. Wouldn't the same factors likely impact their parents?
    Of course, this range of studies demonstrated that mental illness and drug use among American households are not exactly new problems. Which begs the question: Why exactly are the new findings so surprising?
    It's hard not to look at race as the factor. If this study had pointed to increasing death rates among middle-aged minorities, after all, it's unlikely this story would be headline news, if it was even reported at all. At the very least, people would probably be less shocked by it.
    Deaton, though, described the rising deaths among white middle agers as comparable to the HIV/ AIDS epidemic, which seems particularly fitting: Only when straight white people began to die of AIDS did the rest of the world really take note.
    If that's what helps impart change: So be it. So long as all groups are benefiting from such changes. Of course, that seems unlikely. But something, it is clear, does have to change, and fast. Because these are warning signs not just for less educated white Americans, but for all of us.