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 despair, such as from suicide or alcohol abuse, have soared for middle-aged white Americans.

This has been blamed on several phenomena, including opioid abuse. But a new research paper finds another culprit – declining religious practice.

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

The authors noted 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 the group that experienced the subsequent increases in mortality: white middle-aged Americans without a college degree.

Giles/Hungerman/East Stream

States that experienced greater declines in religious participation in the last 15 years of the 20th century experienced greater increases in deaths from despair.

The researchers looked in particular at the repeal of blue laws. Blue laws restricted trading, usually on Sunday mornings. “These laws have been shown to be strongly related to religious practice, creating discrete changes in incentives to attend religious services that are unlikely to be related to other drivers of religiosity,” they said.

Repealing blue laws had a 5- to 10-percentage-point impact on weekly religious service attendance, and increased the death rate from despair by 2 deaths per 100,000 people, they found—accounting for a “reasonable much of the initial increase in the deaths of despair.”

What is also interesting is that the impact appears to be driven by actual formal religious participation, rather than faith or personal activities such as prayer. “These results underscore the importance of cultural institutions such as religious institutions in promoting well-being,” they said.

They further added that they did not know of any cultural phenomenon consistent with the mortality patterns, which are seen for both men and women, but not in other countries, and in both rural and urban settings, but mostly middle-aged, less- educated white individuals.

“The decline in religiosity is consistent with mortality trends in all of these traits,” they wrote.

The authors also pushed back on the opioid theory. They said OxyContin was first introduced as a prescription drug in 1996, but by then the death of despair for middle-aged white Americans was well above the trend.

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