• New research found that middle aged US adults are experiencing rising feelings of despair, indicated by increases in depression, suicidal ideation, drug and alcohol abuse.
  • A drop in US life expectancy was seen in 2016 and explained by an increase in deaths among middle-aged white individuals in rural areas due to the above indicators of despair.
  • This research team, however, came to a different conclusion when they analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (ADD Health).
  • They found that all middle-aged Americans—not just rural whites—are experiencing heightened feelings and indicators of despair.
  • The team says that public health efforts need to be directed at all middle-aged Americans, as opposed to specific subgroups.

Quick Summary

A new study “The Depths of Despair Among US Adults Entering Midlife” from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says that Americans are experiencing rising feelings of despair as they reach middle age. Depression, suicidal ideation, drug use, and alcohol abuse—primary indicators of despair—are increasing among these individuals.


The research team sought to better understand why life expectancy in the US dropped in 2016 for the first time in nearly 25 years. Previously, researchers speculated that this drop came from an increase in deaths from drug overdose, alcohol abuse, and suicide among a specific demographic: middle-aged white individuals with minimal education or in rural regions. These researchers, though, wanted to see if these indicators of despair were also seen in other groups of people.


Researchers looked at the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (ADD Health), which tracked physical and mental health of thousands of people. These individuals were born between 1974 and 1983 and were observed from youth through their late 30s and early 40s in 2016-2018.


The team saw greater levels of despair across the board when these individuals were in their 30s, regardless of race, ethnicity, education, or geographical region. Now, the specific indicators did differ among subgroups with age. For example, Hispanics and African Americans were more likely to report depression symptoms at any age, while whites were more likely to binge-drink in teenhood. However, all subgroups had a difficult time in adolescence, felt better in their twenties, and then experienced a big dip again in their late 30s—as levels of depression, suicidal ideation, drug use, and alcohol abuse increased.


The researchers say these findings are alarming, as their study shows that Americans in midlife, or the Generation X currently, are unhappy, experiencing troubling thoughts and feelings, and engaging in problematic behaviors. The team says public health efforts need to target all middle-aged individuals—not just middle-aged whites in rural areas—as these patterns are observed across the entirety of the middle-aged population.


Gaydosh, L., Hummer, R. A., Hargrove, T. W., et al (2019, April 10). The Depths of Despair Among US Adults Entering Midlife. American Journal of Public Health. Retrieved from https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305002