X, Y, dead: the declining life expectancy of younger generations

Written by Tristan Free

Recent research reveals the causes for US life expectancy decline for early generation X and late generation Y Americans.

Recent research conducted at Duke University (NC, USA) has exposed the myriad of causes leading to declining life expectancy for generation (Gen) X and Y Americans and has found that the leading causes vary for different subgroups defined by gender and race.

The study examined the cause of death for Americans born between 1946 and 1992, which encompasses five different age cohorts. To accomplish this the team studied data compiled from 1990 to 2016 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Mortality Multiple Cause Files, comparing the results according to race and gender.

The researchers found that mortality rates were increased for late Gen X and early Gen Y Americans, especially for non-Hispanic whites. This covered the age range of 27 to 45 years’ old. This was in addition to the previously established rise in mortality rates for the Baby-Boomer generation. The causes responsible for the increased mortality rates, however, differed between generations and, for Gen X and Y, even differed between separate demographics.

There were five overall leading causes of death that were consistent throughout each of the subgroups within the baby boomer generation. Co-author Emma Zang explained how “drug overdoses, external causes — such as traffic accidents and homicides, suicides, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and HIV/AIDS have contributed to the increase in mortality trends among Baby Boomers across all race, ethnic, and gender groups.”

For Gen X and Y, however, the causes for a decreasing life expectancy were far more divergent depending on gender and race. For non-Hispanic white people, both men and women, overdoses and alcohol-related issues represented the main driver for mortality. In comparison, for Hispanics, overdoses and suicides were the most prevalent causes of death. For non-Hispanic black women, the increase in diabetes-based mortalities was the main cause of death, while in non-Hispanic black men cancer, alcohol-related diseases and external causes were the most prominent causes.

The study period encompasses the great recession and the eruption of the opioid abuse crisis, which may account for the prevalence of overdoses as a leading cause of death for so many demographics, while the disparity in access to prescription opioids among different races may explain its omission from others.

This paper highlights the need for greater research into the unique challenges of younger generations and how these challenges may be affecting their life expectancy. “Social scientists and policymakers are aware of the financial burden for the younger generation, but the elevated mortality rate among them has largely been ignored,” the authors state.