Last month the online news website Huffington Post posted a video of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a town hall gathering, at which the erstwhile Republican presidential hopeful shared a heart-rending and very personal account of a friend's losing battle with drug addiction. The often blustery governor urged a greater emphasis on treating people suffering from drug addiction.
Just days after Christie's remarks, Princeton University's Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, and his wife Anne Case, also an economist, released a surprising study of death rates. The couple found that between 1999 and 2013 mortality rates for middle-aged white people - specifically those between 45 and 54, and with a high school education or less - had climbed even as those of other demographic groups in the U.S., and those in other wealthy nations, had steadily declined. Deaton and Case, The New York Times reported, attributed this trend-bucking largely to "an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids."
Since then, the Deaton-Case findings have undergone further scrutiny, and the results have been narrowed, with even more surprising results. Some analysts, such as the authors of a paper circulated by the Urban Institute, say the rising death rates among whites in the 45-54 bracket has been driven up specifically by women.
The Urban Institute scholars note that Deaton and Case failed to segregate men from women in the study. Doing so reveals a dramatic spike in the mortality rates of white women. While the overall death rate for whites in that particular demographic group went up by 34 deaths per 100,000, the ratio of those deaths between women and men was 27 to 7, according to the Urban Institute. Moreover, the mortality rate for men seems to flatline in 2005, while it continued upward for women after then.
Andrew Gelman, a statistics and political science professor at Columbia University, broke down the numbers even further after reviewing the raw data utilized by Deaton and Case. Writing recently at slate.com, he noted that the death rates of white women climbed in the 35-44 bracket as well, and then leveled off at age 52.
"Our findings clearly point to the need for a stronger public health focus on the misuse of prescription opioid drugs, as well as more prevention and treatment of tobacco, alcohol and other drug use; mental illness; and obesity-related illnesses," scientists at the Urban Institute wrote. "In order to tackle the underlying causes of rising mortality among women of reproductive age, the nation needs to take a much broader perspective on health and survival, one that encompasses the social determinants of health of all women because women's health and survival have profound implications for the health and wellbeing of children, families and entire communities."
It appears Gov. Christie had a point: addiction to something - pain killers, booze, illegal drugs, tobacco, even food - is making a large number of women sicker, if not outright killing them, and it must be stopped.
A version of this editorial first appeared in The Ledger of Lakeland, Fla., a Halifax Media Group newspaper.
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