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Duke Researchers: Life Expectancy Down For Gen-Xers and Millennials

Photo of prescription bottle and pils
Eric Norriss
Flickr Creative Commons

A new study from Duke University shows that life expectancy is decreasing for Gen-Xers and older Millennials. The study comes after widely-publicized health research that shows life expectancy for white Americans has gone down for the first time in decades.

Researchers at the Sanford School of Public Policy set out to study the difference in mortality rates between generations and racial groups, to better understand the factors that contribute to the overall decrease in life expectancy for Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. life expectancy has decreased from 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2017.

“What we know is that the mortality under age 50 accounts for much of the fact that the U.S. life expectancy lags that of other high-income countries,” said lead researcher Emma Zang.  

The Duke study found that the life expectancy for 27 to 45 year-old Americans is declining, especially among white men and women. Drug overdoses were the biggest factor behind the rise in mortality for whites and Hispanics in these younger generations. Zang says the opioid epidemic is likely to blame for that loss in life expectancy – and for the overall rise in mortality for GenX-ers and Millennials as a whole.

“So, really, drug poisoning mortality is the leading cause of death behind this elevated mortality trend among younger generations,” Zang said.

Zang says the findings for other racial groups also have important implications for public health policy. She says the story of decreasing life expectancy isn’t only about working-class white Americans, who have received the spotlight in national headlines about mortality.

“I think instead of pushing for this narrative among non-Hispanic whites, we should focus on the broader picture of the racial differences of the U.S. as a whole,” Zang said.

Suicides are on the rise among young Hispanics, and a rise in alcohol-related deaths also contributed to the overall mortality for whites. Meanwhile, diabetes-related deaths are increasing for younger black women. Cancer and alcohol-related diseases are the leading causes of death among young black men.

“Then we started to ask why -- if there’s an opioid crisis -- why it disproportionately affects whites and Hispanics, but not non-Hispanic blacks?” Zang said.  

Zang said one possibility is that the racial disparities in leading causes of death may be due to African-Americans having less access to healthcare -- and thus also to prescription opioids. Studies have also shown that medical practitioners have a racial bias in their pain perception of patients, and may be less likely to prescribe pain medications, including opioids, to black patients.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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