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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Michigan: Growing Life Expectancy Inequality in U.S. Cannot Be Blamed on Opioids Alone

A new University of Michigan study challenges a popular view about what’s causing the growing gap between the lifespans of more- and less-educated Americans — finding shortcomings in the widespread narrative that the United States is facing an epidemic of “despair.”

Some influential studies have argued that growing life expectancy inequality is driven by so-called “deaths of despair,” suggesting that economic stagnation has induced less-educated Americans to turn to drugs, alcohol and suicide.

Yet, that explanation is inconsistent with a large body of research on the way many disadvantaged Americans respond to stress, says Dr. Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

“The assumption that people are giving up neglects the existing research that shows the engaged and tenacious ways people often deal with life challenges,” Dr. Geronimus said.

Dr. Geronimus and her team set out to look at whether the empirical data backed this concept. They used Census and Vital Statistics data to evaluate historically relevant causes of deaths for non-Hispanic blacks and whites between 1990 and 2015.

When looking at the deaths of despair (drug overdose, suicide and alcohol-related liver diseases), they found that drug overdoses do contribute to the widening inequality for whites, especially men, but that’s not the case for blacks. Also, they found that overdose deaths are less important for growing inequality in women’s life expectancy.

“These findings suggest that, rather than giving up in the face of hopelessness, less-educated Americans may be losing ground for exactly the opposite reason — because they work so hard, they bear the health consequences of years of stress,” Dr. Geronimus said.

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