© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas City Data Largely Tracks Rising Death Rates For Middle-Aged White Men

A much talked-about study by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize for economics last month, found a spike in the death rate for middle-aged white Americans between 1999 and 2013, specifically those with a high school education or less.

That came as a big surprise to many health experts because the mortality rates for other demographic groups in the United States have been falling. Higher suicide rates, alcohol and drug abuse appear to account, at least in part, for the increase among middle-aged whites, but it’s not clear why this group – and not others – have been disproportionately affected.

Various explanations have been advanced for what New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman termed “this epic of self-destructive behavior.” Krugman said Deaton’s suggestion that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives” was a plausible hypothesis. Another New York Times columnist, the conservative Ross Douthat, proposed that members of this group may have lost their “sense of meaning and purpose.”

Whatever the explanation, we decided to see if local mortality data track Case and Deaton’s finding. We looked at the data for non-Hispanic white males, the subset with the highest mortality rates, in Johnson and Wyandotte counties on the Kansas side and in metropolitan Kansas City on the Missouri side.

Our comparison with Case and Deaton’s data is imperfect because they looked at whites 45 to 54 years old and the data we obtained was for white males between 45 and 64 years old.

Still, the age range was close enough. And what we found largely correlates with Case and Deaton’s conclusion, even after population increases are taken into account. Although the death rates fluctuated from year to year, the data sets for KCMO and Johnson County do show an overall spike in middle-aged white Americans’ mortality from 1999 to 2013.

The exception, curiously, is Wyandotte County. We say curiously, because Wyandotte County has some of the poorest health outcomes of any county in Kansas. The needle barely moved between 1999 and 2013.

That’s a cheering result for a county that has been working hard to improve its population’s health. Maybe those efforts are beginning to bear fruit.

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.