Why are so many middle aged people dropping dead?

First thing this morning, I saw the headlines that wrestling star Chyna had died. She was 45 years old.

(Update: About an hour after I posted this, a friend sent me a text telling me Prince also died today).

I don’t care about her death any more than I care about anyone else’s. I’ve always hated that celebrities’ deaths are elevated, while “ordinary” people die everyday and we hardly notice – even though they were likely the center of someone else’s world, did amazing things or were genuinely good people.

I do care, however, that so many people in this demographic are dying. Maybe that’s because I’m part of that demographic now. But I don’t think that’s the only reason. If you haven’t seen this report about how one segment of the American population is seeing an increase in its mortality rate, you should read it. But if you don’t want to read the whole thing, read this:

The report, by David Squires and David Blumenthal, notes that between 1999 and 2014, mortality rates in the U.S. rose for white Americans aged 22 and 56. Before that, death rates had been falling by nearly 2 percent each year since 1968. Squires and Blumenthal call the difference between the those two mortality trend lines—the expected, declining one and the actual, rising one—the “mortality gap.”
In 2014, they write, the mortality gap was so big that it accounted for an extra 100 dead, middle-aged white people for every 100,000.

mortality gap

Basically, the article and report tell us that before 1999, the death rates for white Americans between 22 and 56 had been falling – likely thanks to better living conditions and medical advances. Since 1999, however, the death rate in that group has been on the rise, despite drops in other demographics. The mortality gap, as it’s called, really widens somewhere around the age of 40. And the cause of death is inordinately suicide or drug and alcohol abuse, though there’s also a concerning fact about people this age succumbing to illnesses from which they generally recover.

Okay. Here goes: To me, it sounds like the cause of death is hopelessness.

There’s a line from the movie “Fight Club” that might be one of my favorite bits of dialogue.
Brad Pitt, playing the character Tyler Durden, is standing in the middle of a group of Fight Club members, explaining why this group of men get such a thrill from beating the hell out of each other.

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

It used to be that a person could graduate from high school and land a decent paying job at the local factory. From there, he or she would raise a family, buy a house, join a local organization, do some community work, make friends and live a reasonably complete and meaningful life.
My generation watched our parents’ jobs get taken out from under them. As we entered the workforce, it was made clear that our jobs might be lost if the company needed to “right-size” or if investors weren’t getting the profits they had come to expect.

According to the Labor Department, “the average person born in the later years of the baby boom held 10.5 jobs from age 18 to 40.” In 2006, the most recent year for which there are statistics, 54 million Americans, or 40 percent of the work force, left their jobs.

But it’s more than work. Fraternal organizations – the Elks, Moose, Eagles lodges, the VFW and American Legion – are struggling to replace older members who are dying. In our communities, we aren’t caring for each other quite well enough. We are busy, so we keep our heads down, do what we must, tend to ourselves and do less of the things that make us feel rooted, and connected, in the place that we live. And that makes it hard to call it home.

We’ve been given the message that this is a dog-eat-dog world. I’ll do for me, and you do for you. Business is business, and money/power/fame are the only things that matter. This book does a good job of talking about that in a very entertaining way.


Then there’s our culture that has created an artificial idea of success and promoted it as the only truth for us to follow. Most of that is built around getting you to buy stuff. We know that, right? You aren’t good enough if you don’t have a fat stack of cash. You aren’t a whole person if everyone doesn’t love and want to be around you. The best life you could live is one where you have a big screen television in every room of your sprawling house, with microfiber furniture, fast cars in the garage, women hanging on your arm and parties every single night. We have our “reality” television shows, where we deliberately create dramatic situations and then edit them down to the best bits. And because it’s manufactured reality, we believe that our lives should look that way, too, and if our life doesn’t look like that, there MUST be something wrong with us.

And the whole time, our souls are starving.

So we reach middle age, when the shit really hits the fan. When, if we don’t have the life we’ve been told we should have, we start to feel really bad about the way things turned out. Or when we come to accept that we’ve been fed a lie about how anyone can be rich or famous or whatever they dream. So long as what you dream isn’t something that falls outside the norm. So long as you purchase and consume and maintain an insatiable appetite for things outside of yourself in an attempt to fill that emptiness inside you’ve tried so hard to ignore.

It seems to me we used to fill it that with meaningful work, effort, family, friends, hobbies, interests, our abilities, faith, or connection to the world around us. Dinner parties, dancing, concerts, community get-togethers, things of the sort. I don’t know what we fill it with now, but it seems like it’s an awful amount of stuff, and a feeling that if you aren’t in a certain place by a certain time in life you have failed. That if you don’t have enough followers on social media, you’re just another face in the crowd. A meaningless, pointless face whose life will pass without hardly a notice or care. If you’re not somebody “important”, you’re nobody at all.

It’s not as if I’m not part of this thinking, too. I find myself comparing my life to others. Looking at the ways I’ve mismanaged it, or stumbled, and the ensuing repercussions. I look at my house and think it should be bigger. I look at what’s in it, and think there should be more. I look at an evening spent alone, and the reheated leftovers I’ll eat for dinner, and think that’s no life at all.

But if I can pull back just a bit, I’ll remember.

I watched the sunrise today.
I heard birds call to me.
I talked to a friend.
I saw a child laugh with pure joy.
I heard music.
I read something that stirred my soul.
I moved with my own energy.
I saw a flower in full bloom.
I felt an embrace.
I smelled the rich spring air.
I heard thunder roll across the sky.
I tasted chocolate.
I have felt love.
I have felt pain.
I have lived.

2 thoughts on “Why are so many middle aged people dropping dead?

  1. Oh Jason. I’ve been reading several reports about the increasing death rate of middle aged white men too. All I can think about are my uncles on my Dad’s side of the family. Blue collar Philadelphia. They all went to work in factories, stayed there their whole lives, retired with steady pensions, raised families, bought houses, and so forth. But now there isn’t that so much. And you do hit it on the head about expectations and somehow those expectations aren’t reachable anymore. I also can’t help but think of the white anger at no longer being the dominant, powerful group. Can’t help but think about the rising tide of anger, frustration, and fear during this crazy political season and wonder how much is related that life didn’t turn out the way it used to be in terms of working steady jobs, affording a house, etc. The speaker at this morning’s Chamber breakfast talked about something that really resonated with me. We spend so much time on what kids are going to do when they grow up and not enough time on helping kids figure out what kind of person do they want to become. Powerful shift of thinking and very much in tune with how you ended this piece. Does it help all those angry and fearful folks who feel they’ve been cheated out of what was coming to them? No. But I’m beginning to understand more and more the anger emanating from so many of the folks appearing at the various political rallies. Not sure how to stop it and help reverse it. You continue to write very thoughtful pieces and I’m grateful we have someone like you at the Hutch News.

  2. Jason- “Our great war is a spiritual war.” Yes. We are Blessed as we are witnessing the time of the Great Change. A change in the Ages. Hence, Critical masses of humans and animals are “choosing” to leave the physical plane right now. They leave for many reasons… each for a Sacred Purpose. Time is very short now. It is this moment.. the Now.. that all Human’s must decide.. Am I working in the Spiritual Light or feeding the dark? YOU, my friend, are in the Light.

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