Death on the Ridge Road

Looking Back on Deaths of Despair and Disparities

Stats are rolling in to put numbers on the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year we’ve just survived (apologies to Judith Viorst). Those stats tell us just how bad things had gotten. Life expectancy dropped more than ever since the World Wars. Deaths from drug overdoses jumped by 30 percent. It was a year filled with deaths of despair and disparities.

But the good news is that we’re done with that year. In fact, more Americans feel like they’re now thriving than Gallup has ever recorded in its polling. We’ve sprung from a 12-year low to a record high on this measure.

Deaths of Despair

Back in 2017, we were naive enough to be clucking about deaths of despair based upon the work of Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Drug, alcohol, and suicide deaths had been surging for White Americans in midlife. As bad as that trendline was, it was nothing compared to 2020.

The 30 percent surge in drug overdose deaths broke many records in a devastating way, says Director Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

“This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, and the largest increase since at least 1999. These data are chilling. The COVID-19 pandemic created a devastating collision of health crises in America.”

On top of that, U.K. deaths from alcohol hit a record high in 2020. Though U.S. numbers for deaths from alcohol are not out yet, it’s clear that alcohol abuse rose in the pandemic year. Suicides offer the only stat that isn’t so dire. In 2020, though suicides among people of color may have risen, the overall rate of suicide dropped by five percent.

Little did we know that all that 2017 talk about deaths of despair was nothing compared to what was headed our way.

Pandemic Deaths and Disparities

The record drop in life expectancy due to the pandemic came with a wallop for people of color. The drop in life expectancy was more than twice as big for Black Americans than White. For Hispanic Americans, it was dramatically higher, too, but not quite twofold.

So without a doubt, racial and ethnic disparities in health widened in 2020.

Happier Days

Against that backdrop, we are glad to see the optimism reflected in Gallup’s Life Evaluation Index. In June, fully 59 percent of Americans reported that they are thriving. Reports of daily stress and worry have dropped to pre-COVID levels.

Taking in this whole picture, we can find both encouragement and a whole lot of work to do. The pandemic has brought us more alcohol and drug abuse. Obesity has risen for children and likely for adults. Chronic diseases will be a greater burden because of this and the impact is growing ever more disparate.

But indeed, we know what to do and if we work at it, we have good reasons for optimism.

Click here for report on life expectancy and here for the data on overdose deaths. For more on the challenge of disparities, click here and here.

Death on the Ridge Road, painting by Grant Wood / WikiArt

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July 15, 2021