Death Rates Among Middle-Aged White North Carolinians On Rise

Feb 5, 2018

Middle-aged whites in North Carolina are dying at increasing rates, a recent East Carolina University study shows. 

East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine
Credit ECU News Services

“A large portion of the increase in mortality is attributed to ‘deaths of despair’— suicide, liver disease, drug overdose and behaviors that lead to these deaths,” Dr. Chris Mansfield, one of the study's authors, told ECU's news services. 

Between 2000 and 2013, the mortality rate among 45-54 year-old whites in North Carolina rose by six percent.  In that time, suicide rates more than doubled and deaths from liver disease, often caused by heavy drinking, increased by almost 40 percent, the study finds. 

The researchers identified a sharper increase in death rates among middle-aged whites in economically disadvantaged counties.  For instance, the state's 40 poorest counties - known as Tier 1 counties - saw an almost 17 percent increase in overall mortality rates over the study period. Also in these counties, death rates linked to all causes studied -- heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, suicide and liver disease -- were higher. This wasn't true for wealthier counties.  More than half of the state's poorest counties are in Eastern North Carolina.   

While rising death rates among middle-aged whites is a national trend, the life expectancy for that demographic is increasing in Canada and Europe, Mansfield said. 

“What’s different about European countries? Well, safety net programs,” Mansfield told ECU News Services. “I guess we’re going to have to question the value of our safety net programs, and one of those would be Medicaid. Can we expand Medicaid? Can we preserve access to health care? It doesn’t look like there’s any intention to do that.”

For middle-aged nonwhites in North Carolina, mortality rates fell by 30 percent over the 13-year period, the study shows. But mid-life mortality rates for nonwhites are still 25 percent higher than for whites, the authors write. 

The study predicts the upward trend in death rates among middle-aged whites will continue through 2020.