We’re kicking off 2020 with some good news: in 2018, there was a decline in deaths of despair—that is, deaths due to suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis. The absolute number of deaths fell, as did the crude and age-adjusted rates.1 These trends are true both of the population at large and of the middle-aged non-Hispanic white population on whom Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s research originally focused.
From 2017 to 2018, the age-adjusted mortality rate from deaths of despair ticked down from 45.8 to 45.3 per 100,000. (Prior to this drop, the rate had risen from 24.9 per 100,000 in 1998.) Among the non-Hispanic white population ages 45 to 54, crude rate fell between 2017 and 2018 from 89.3 to 86.6 deaths per 100,000.
As this is only one year-to-year comparison, it is important to note that the decline in deaths of despair may be temporary. However, the major cause of the decline was a decrease in drug-related deaths, and there is reason to believe this drop continued into 2019. Specifically, the provisional death count for drug overdose deaths fell between July 2018 and July 2019.2
Overall, the number and the rate of deaths of despair remain exceptionally high. As demonstrated in the Social Capital Project’s report, Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair, “mortality from deaths of despair far surpasses anything seen in America since the dawn of the 20th century.”3 But these most recent numbers from 2018 provide reason to hope that perhaps the tide may be turning.
1 Special thanks to Mickey Kaus for calling our attention to the possibility that there may have been a decline in deaths of despair in 2018: https://twitter.com/kausmickey/status/1228000208073691136?s=20
3 In that report, we used a modified version of deaths of despair that differs from the Case-Deaton definition. By our definition, deaths of despair also fell for the population as a whole and for middle-aged non-Hispanic whites.