Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Are Middle-Aged Men Dying?

R.R.Reno notes that there has been a marked increase in the death rates of middle-aged white American men and claims that though observers have expressed surprise and bafflement at this, it's really neither surprising nor baffling. He writes:
We’re in the midst of a crisis. The New York Times reports that Angus Deaton and Ann Case, two Princeton economists, have identified increases in suicide and drug and alcohol related deaths among high school educated white Americas as the cause for a remarkable spike in the overall death rate for middle-aged white Americans. Various experts express surprise, shock, and sadness. I can understand the sadness, but not the surprise.

Over a fifteen-year period (1999-2014), the death rate for whites age 45 to 54 with a high school education or less increased by 25 percent, while death rates for the same age range in other groups in America and other rich countries declined. That is indeed shocking. It’s the sort of rise that only occurs during periods of social crisis or collapse. Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union is one instance. Europe during and in the immediate aftermath of World War II is another.
Reno goes on to discuss why he's not surprised at the statistics. I don't disagree with anything he says, but I'd place more stress on a factor that he mentions only obliquely:
I don’t find myself baffled. For the last few decades, cultural leaders have been waging a war on the weak. Their goal is to dismantle traditional norms and rules for family life. They push to dismantle gender roles and other foundational categories that ordinary people use to orient themselves and make sense out of their lives. They advocate for drug legalization and doctor-assisted suicide as well. The upshot: reliable guides toward a normal life are removed, and potentially destructive behaviors that rich people either avoid or discretely manage are normalized. The most vulnerable pay the cost.
The salient factor in the rise in death rates among middle-aged white men, I suspect, is that so many of them are either divorced or never-married. It's been known by sociologists for a long time that married men live longer, on average, than unmarried men. They engage in fewer of the self-destructive behaviors that unmarried men are prone to, they take better care of their health, and are more satisfied with their lives. On the other hand, as the number of unmarried men grows in the population so, too, does the incidence of harmful behaviors like alcoholism, drug use, etc. and the truncated life-spans these behaviors entail.

As an article published by the Harvard Medical School points out, marriage is good for men's health:
A major survey of 127,545 American adults found that married men are healthier than men who were never married or whose marriages ended in divorce or widowhood. Men who have marital partners also live longer than men without spouses; men who marry after age 25 get more protection than those who tie the knot at a younger age, and the longer a man stays married, the greater his survival advantage over his unmarried peers.
The article goes on to discuss why this is so, but there seems no doubt that marriage is a major factor in male longevity. Nevertheless, for a host of reasons, relatively fewer men are married today than in previous generations, and by the time these unaffiliated males reach middle-age a lot of health problems, apparently, catch up with them.