New research does not paint a pretty picture for some Generation X-ers as they enter middle age. Vanderbilt University investigators discovered that indicators of despair — depression, suicidal ideation, drug use and alcohol abuse — are increasing among Americans in their late 30s and early 40s across most demographic groups.
In her research, Lauren Gaydosh, assistant professor of Medicine, Health and Society and Public Policy Studies, discovered an ominous trend. That is, the increase in “deaths of despair” observed among low-educated, middle-aged white Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) in recent studies may begin to impact the youngest members of Generation X (born 1974-1983) more broadly in the years to come.
The study, “The Depths of Despair Among U.S. Adults Entering Midlife,” appears in the American Journal of Public Health. Gaydosh’s co-authors are Kathleen Mullan Harris, Robert A. Hummer, Taylor W. Hargrove, Carolyn T. Halpern, Jon M. Hussey, Eric A. Whitsel, and Nancy Dole, all at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2016, U.S. life expectancy began to decline for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. Researchers theorized that the marked increase in deaths due to drug overdose, alcoholic cirrhosis and suicide was highest among middle-aged whites with low education or in rural areas.
At the time, this was explained by a unique triple-punch of worsening employment prospects accompanied by a declining perception of socioeconomic status and an erosion of social supports for this group. But studies to better understand those mortality trends did not definitively show that low-income rural whites were actually experiencing more despair than other groups.
“What we wanted to do in this paper was to examine whether the factors that may be predictive of those causes of death — substance use, suicidal ideation and depression — are isolated to that particular population subgroup, or whether it’s a more generalized phenomenon,” Gaydosh said.
To do so, they turned to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, or Add Health, directed by Harris at the University of North Carolina. The survey tracked the physical and mental health of thousands of Americans born between 1974-1983 from adolescence through their late 30s and early 40s in 2016-18.
“We found that despair has increased in this cohort, but that increases are not restricted to non-Hispanic whites with low education,” Gaydosh said. “Instead, the increase in despair that occurs across the 30s is generalized to the entire cohort, regardless of race, ethnicity, education, and geography.”
Patterns of drinking, drug use and mental health symptoms varied across races and education levels — whites were more likely to binge-drink in adolescence, while Hispanics and African Americans of all ages were more likely to report depressive symptoms. Overall, the trends were broadly the same for people entering middle age.
Adolescence was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a rocky time for everyone, followed by a period of improvement in their twenties. By the time the teens were in their late 30s, however, indicators of despair were trending back up across the board, and in some cases were higher for minority populations than they were for low-educated whites or rural adults.
Gaydosh and her colleagues say these findings should be cause for concern, as they suggest midlife mortality may begin to increase across a wide range of demographic groups.
“Public health efforts to reduce these indicators of despair should not be targeted toward just rural whites, for example,” she said, “because we’re finding that these patterns are generalized across the population.”
Source: Vanderbilt University