A “Wake-Up Call”?
Among young adults, the death rate from 1999 to 2013 dropped 33 percent. However, the death rate abruptly reversed direction between 2013 and 2016, rising 12 percent. According to a recent report released June 1, 2018, by the National Center for Health Statistics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). the increase in deaths is due to motor vehicle accidents, drug overdoses, suicides, and homicides, and not to illnesses like cancer, heart disease, or infections.
Surprised by the Numbers
The lead author of the report, CDC statistician Sally Curtin, expressed astonishment over the findings: “When I first conceded to do this report 2½ years ago, I thought that we would be documenting a decline. We were surprised that there was such a broad increase across so many causes of death. There wasn’t just one that was contributing.”
Of the unintentional injury deaths, 62 percent came from traffic fatalities; poisoning (mostly drug overdoses) took 16 percent of the lives. Suicides rose from 2013 to 2016 as well, by 56 percent. In 2016, the leading suicide methods were suffocation, firearms, and poisoning. In the U.S. among young adults, guns accounted for 87 percent of all homicides and 43 percent of all suicides.
A separate study published at the end of May, 2018, in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) found that increasing numbers of deaths among those ages 15 to 34 were due to injuries. The most likely causes of fatal injuries mostly matched those listed in the CDC study: motor vehicle crashes, poisoning, and drowning, followed by suicide and homicide.
A trauma surgeon not involved with the study, Dr. Thomas Weiser of Stanford University Medical Center, said that he found the data, “[v]ery concerning. This should not be happening and bucks the trend that we as a country have experienced in the past several decades. We should be worried about this.”
Why Is This Happening?
Dr. Tina Cheng, the director of the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, speculated about the reasons that young adult deaths might be rising sharply and suddenly. After saying that she and her colleagues have been seeing more young people in clinics and ERs because of depression, aggression, and suicide, she noted, “This is a wake-up call that we need to pay attention to the health and well-being of our children. It is hard to know the precise reason for the upturn in unintentional, intentional, and self-inflicted injuries. Some have suggested that social media and cyberbullying may be contributing. Others have pointed to growing income inequality.”
It’s entirely possible that poverty is playing a role. As of 2016, almost one in five children under the age of 18 (19 percent) lived below the federal poverty level threshold, and 22 percent of them were near that level. For a family of four with one child, the 2016 income limit was $24,339; a single-parent household with one child had a federal poverty level threshold income of only $16,543. It’s been shown that hunger, homelessness, and poverty in general impact a child in long-lasting ways, producing tendencies toward depression and stunting social and emotional growth. To put it succinctly, poor kids are at risk.
No one has definitive answers as to why the death rate among young people has been climbing recently. But Dr. Weiser fears what might lie ahead of us. “Our children are our country’s future, and we as a society need to recognize when they are in trouble. This disturbing trend should be a wake-up call that mental health services, injury prevention, gun safety and ongoing efforts to improve car and driver safety need support, attention, and financial resources. Our investments now as a society will be paid back handsomely when our children grow up to be healthy, productive adults.”
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