Mortality and Morbidity in the 21 st Century

Brookings Pap Econ Act. Spring 2017;2017:397-476. doi: 10.1353/eca.2017.0005.


We build on and extend the findings in Case and Deaton (2015) on increases in mortality and morbidity among white non-Hispanic Americans in midlife since the turn of the century. Increases in all-cause mortality continued unabated to 2015, with additional increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality, particularly among those with a high-school degree or less. The decline in mortality from heart disease has slowed and, most recently, stopped, and this combined with the three other causes is responsible for the increase in all-cause mortality. Not only are educational differences in mortality among whites increasing, but from 1998 to 2015 mortality rose for those without, and fell for those with, a college degree. This is true for non-Hispanic white men and women in all five year age groups from 35-39 through 55-59. Mortality rates among blacks and Hispanics continued to fall; in 1999, the mortality rate of white non-Hispanics aged 50-54 with only a high-school degree was 30 percent lower than the mortality rate of blacks in the same age group but irrespective of education; by 2015, it was 30 percent higher. There are similar crossovers in all age groups from 25-29 to 60-64. Mortality rates in comparable rich countries have continued their pre-millennial fall at the rates that used to characterize the US. In contrast to the US, mortality rates in Europe are falling for those with low levels of educational attainment, and have fallen further over this period than mortality rates for those with higher levels of education. Many commentators have suggested that poor mortality outcomes can be attributed to contemporaneous levels of resources, particularly to slowly growing, stagnant, and even declining incomes; we evaluate this possibility, but find that it cannot provide a comprehensive explanation. In particular, the income profiles for blacks and Hispanics, whose mortality rates have fallen, are no better than those for whites. Nor is there any evidence in the European data that mortality trends match income trends, in spite of sharply different patterns of median income across countries after the Great Recession. We propose a preliminary but plausible story in which cumulative disadvantage from one birth cohort to the next, in the labor market, in marriage and child outcomes, and in health, is triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education. This account, which fits much of the data, has the profoundly negative implication that policies, even ones that successfully improve earnings and jobs, or redistribute income, will take many years to reverse the mortality and morbidity increase, and that those in midlife now are likely to do much worse in old age than those currently older than 65. This is in contrast to an account in which resources affect health contemporaneously, so that those in midlife now can expect to do better in old age as they receive Social Security and Medicare. None of this implies that there are no policy levers to be pulled; preventing the over-prescription of opioids is an obvious target that would clearly be helpful.