Rise in middle-aged white ‘deaths of despair’ may be fueled by loss of religion, new research paper argues

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So-called deaths from depression, such as suicide or alcohol abuse, are skyrocketing for middle-aged white Americans.

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This has been blamed on a variety of incidents including opioid abuse. But a new research paper finds a different culprit – a decline in religious practice.

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A working paper by Tyler Giles of Wellesley College, Daniel Hungerman of the University of Notre Dame, and Tamar Ostrom of The Ohio State University looked at the relationship between religiosity and mortality from deaths of despair. The paper was circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The authors note that many measures of religious observance began to decline in the late 1980s. They find that the large decline in religious practice was driven by a group experiencing a subsequent increase in mortality: white middle-aged Americans without college degrees.

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Giles/Hungerman/Ostrom

States that experienced large declines in religious participation in the last 15 years of the 20th century saw large increases in deaths from depression.

The researchers looked specifically at the repeal of blue laws. Blue laws limit trading, usually to Sunday mornings. “These laws have been shown to be strongly related to religious practice, with distinct changes in incentives to attend religious services that are not related to other drivers of religiosity,” he added.

Repeal of blue laws had a 5- to 10-percentage-point effect on weekly attendance of religious services, and increased the death rate of depression to a rate of 2 deaths per 100,000 people, they found — accounting for a “substantially large share”. Initial rise in deaths of accounting despair.

It is also interesting that the effect appears to be driven by actual formal religious participation, rather than individual activities such as faith or prayer. “These results underscore the importance of cultural institutions, such as religious institutions, in promoting well-being,” he added.

They further stated that they were not aware of any cultural phenomenon that matched the pattern of mortality observed for both men and women, but not in other countries, and in both rural and urban settings, but Mostly middle-aged, less-educated white men.

“The decline in religiosity matched mortality trends in all of these characteristics,” he wrote.

The authors also pushed back on the opioid theory. He noted that even when OxyContin was first introduced as a prescription drug in 1996, deaths from despair were still well above the trend for middle-aged white Americans by then.

Credit: www.marketwatch.com /

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