Researchers from the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, and Universities of Sheffield and Western Ontario, have explored the pre-pandemic rise of 'deaths of despair' – attributed to drugs, alcohol, and suicide – and its impact on mid-life mortality in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
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The researchers analysed mortality from 2001 to 2019 in 35-64 year-olds in the UK, US, and Canada, focusing on fatalities linked to drugs, alcohol and suicide – collectively referred to as ‘deaths of despair’ in these countries.
Co-author Dr. Andrea Tilstra, Senior Postdoctoral Researcher at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and the new Demographic Science Unit at Oxford Population Health added, ‘By examining trends in these three countries, this study raises doubts about using a single approach for 'deaths of despair'. The complexities we've uncovered urge us to reconsider a one-size-fits-all approach and emphasise the need for tailored interventions that suit each country's unique circumstances.’
The BMJ Open study revealed a striking parallel between Scotland and the US in drug-related deaths, with both regions experiencing significant relative increases and high absolute levels of fatalities linked to drug use. In contrast, the rest of the UK and Canada witnessed relative increases in drug-related deaths but much lower levels overall.
Alcohol-specific deaths showed a different pattern, with deaths gradually rising in the US and Northern Ireland in older ages but falling dramatically from very high levels in Scotland in that age group. Meanwhile, suicide deaths exhibited a slow upward trend across most examined countries.
Lead author Professor Jennifer Dowd, Deputy Director of the Leverhulme Centre and Demographic Science Unit, concluded, ‘Overall, the different trends in these causes of death across country, age, and time, challenge the value of analysing 'deaths of despair' as a single cause, and the associated narrative that they are driven by similar fundamental causes.’
This study is part of Professor Jennifer Dowd’s European Research Council Consolidator project MORTAL.