‘Diseases of despair,’ including substance abuse, alcohol dependency and suicidal thoughts, have spiked in the US over the last decade, a new study suggests.
Researchers found a 68 percent rise in Americans diagnosed with one of these disorders between 2009 and 2018.
Increases for suicide-related thoughts were highest among teens under age 18, rising by nearly 300 percent, and there was a more than 110 percent increase of infants being born with substance related disorders due to their mothers’ drug use.
The team, from Penn State University, says the findings show a disturbing trend, but can be used to identify future ‘hot spots’ of diagnoses in communities so that officials and public health experts can deliver interventions.
Researchers from Penn State University looked at diagnoses of ‘diseases of despair’ in the US between 2009 and 2018 (file image)
Diagnoses of either substance abuse, alcohol dependency, or suicidal thoughts and behaviors rose by 68% (total, left and right)
The concept of deaths of despair were first theorized by two economists from Princeton University in 2015.
They found a decline in the life expectancy of middle-aged white men and women between 1999 and 2015 and theorized it was due to several social and economic changes in small towns and rural areas.
This included falling wages, the rising cost of higher education and several industries moving to bigger cities.
‘It is theorized that these changes have fostered growing feelings of despair including disillusionment, precariousness and resignation in many peoples’ lives,’ said co-author Dr Daniel George, an associate professor of humanities and public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine.
‘Despair can trigger emotional, cognitive, behavioral and even biological changes, increasing the likelihood of diseases that can progress and ultimately culminate in deaths of despair.’
For the study, published in BMJ Open, the team analyzed the claims of more than 12 million people insured by Highmark Health between 2009 and 2018.
Although participants resided across the country, the majority were concentrated in Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Over the course of the study, a total of 515,830 participants – or one in 20 – received at least one disease of despair diagnosis.
Of them, about 54 percent were diagnosed with an alcohol-related disorder, 44 percent were diagnosed with a substance-related disorder and 16 percent were diagnosed with suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
About 13 percent of the group were diagnosed with more than one disease of despair.
Between 2009 and 2018, the annual rates of diagnoses for these diseases increased by 68 percent.
Over the same time period, the prevalence of alcohol-related, substance-related and suicide-related diagnoses rose by 37 percent, 94 percent and 170 percent, respectively.
For alcohol-related disorders, the biggest increase in diagnoses were seen among men (orange line, left) and women (orange line, right) from ages 55 to 74 at 50% and 80%, respectively
Diagnoses for substance-related disorders among infants – due to their mothers’ drug abuse – soared by 114% (yellow line, left and right)
Suicidal thoughts and behaviors diagnoses increased the most for those under age 18 by 287% for those under age 18 and by 210% for people from ages 18 to 34 (green line, left and right)
For alcohol-related disorders, the biggest increases were seen among men and women from ages 55 to 74 at 50 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
When it came to suicidal thoughts, the most dramatic rises were seen among younger people, rising by 287 percent for those under age 18 and by 210 percent for people from ages 18 to 34.
Increases for substance-related disorders were also highest for men and women from ages 55 to 74 at 170 percent.
However, one troubling spike was these disorders among infants – attributable to neonatal neonatal abstinence syndrome linked to drug abuse by pregnant mothers – which for rose by 114 percent.
‘This increase was entirely attributable to neonatal abstinence syndrome and corresponded closely with increases in substance-related disorders among women of childbearing age,’ said Emily Brignone, a senior research scientist at Highmark Health Enterprise Analytics.
In the future, the team hopes to develop a model that can identify ‘hot spots’ of diseases of despair diagnoses so communities at risk can receive interventions.
‘We found a broad view of who is impacted by increases in diseases of despair, which cross racial, ethnic and geographic groups,’ said co-author Dr Jennifer Kraschnewski, professor of medicine, public health sciences and pediatrics.
‘Although originally thought to mostly affect rural communities, these increases in all middle-aged adults across the rural-urban continuum likely foreshadows future premature deaths.’