Why Are Young American Adults Dying In Such Huge Numbers?

Bloomberg has put together an interesting and sobering look at mortality rates in the U.S., which is a real mix of good and bad news. On the good side, you’ve got infants and children, whose mortality rates have been plummeting for nearly a century now; adults 45 – 64, whose decline in mortality has been generally improving; and adults over 65, who’ve seen a very steep drop-off in their mortality rates.

But for American teenagers and young adults, it’s a different story. Ever since 1950, their mortality rates just haven’t seen the same gains made by other age groups. Young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 have seen the least improvement of any age group, dying at about the same rates in 2020 as they did in 1953. Some of this can be chalked up to COVID-19, of course, but not all of it. For proof, look at the international stage. Young adults in most wealthy countries have been seeing their mortality rates drop commensurate with the population at large ever since 2010. In the U.S., it just hasn’t been the case. Why?

There are a lot of reasons, but three culprits loom over all: opioids, gun violence and car collisions.

The opioid crisis’ toll on young Americans can hardly be overstated and is the number one driver of death among young adults. It gets even more disturbing when you consider that “opioids” and “gun violence” both include suicide. In 2015, economists Ann Case and Angus Deaton named this trend “deaths of despair.”

And then there’s gun violence, which occurs in the U.S. at vastly greater rates than it does anywhere else in the world, largely due to just how many guns we have compared to the global average (the U.S. has far and away the most guns per capita of any country in the world, with 120 firearms per 100 citizens. The closest runner up is the Falkland Islands, with about 62 firearms per 100 people.)

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Car collisions is another difficult one. Americans drive a lot more than people in other countries, and we have relatively lax laws around driving. You don’t hear many calls to reform driving laws in the U.S., but evidence does suggest that doing so could save a lot of lives – even if it was something as simple as more traffic cameras.

Fixing these things won’t be simple or cheap. But insofar as we want to be a society that values life, it does seem like a worthy place to invest time and resources. The U.S. is already attempting to tackle its opioid epidemic, and there are some signs of hope on the horizon. The fight against gun violence is another matter, with attempts to address the issue stalling in Congress.

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