Geriatric psychiatrist Charles “Chip” Reynolds III has for decades been one of Pittsburgh’s and the nation’s leading scholars and
2016 seemed to be a dangerous year to be a celebrity. The deaths of David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, George Michael, Natalie Cole and others offered depressing headlines. It almost seemed personal to some of us.
In fact, more celebrities did die in 2016 than in past years for two reasons: an increase in the availability of celebrities who could pass away and the aging of the celebrity population. The internet, serving up access to Pandora, Spotify and YouTube, along with reality shows, movie megaplexes, 24-hour news and social media contribute to a greater sense of familiarity with a wider range of people. Thanks to technology, more people are in the public eye. As a result, we have more celebrities whose deaths we notice.
The 2016 celebrity deaths also reflect population dynamics as the baby boomers enter old age. Some celebrities who passed were old. Actress Zsa Zsa Gabor was 99, astronaut John Glenn was 95, and author and activist Elie Wiesel was 88. But others were in midlife, such as journalist Gwen Ifill, who was only 61. Prince was 57. Children’s author Anna Dewdney was only 50. These midlife deaths seem incongruous. People are supposed to die in old age.
Unfortunately, the celebrity headlines serve as harbingers of a bigger trend: an increase in deaths more broadly. For the first time in nearly a century, the U.S. saw an increase in mortality. That is, more people were dying per 100,000. This shift represents a reversal in a long trend of improved health and longevity. Beginning in the 20th century, life expectancy increased. The average person born in 1900 expected to live only to age 50. But throughout the 20th century, vaccinations, antibiotics, better health care and prevention and safety such as seat belts and campaigns to diminish smoking increased life expectancy dramatically. Babies born in the U.S. in 2010 expected to survive to age 79. Surprisingly, that longevity trend reversed from 2015 to 2016.
So what accounts for the increased risk of mortality? We’ve seen blips during the past 100 years — the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic disproportionately killed young adults, and again in 1994, the height of the AIDS epidemic showed spikes in mortality. But the 2015-2016 decrease in well-being is more complicated because we can’t attribute it to a single cause.
Some of the deaths in midlife reflect addiction and mental health problems, such as Prince and former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland. Adults ages 45 to 54 in the U.S. are disproportionately likely to die of overdose, heavy drinking or suicide. Some of the increased deaths stem from lack of access to health care and preventive services. The death rate of young women due to pregnancy and childbirth also rose dramatically in the U.S.
And still other deaths might be linked to obesity and sedentary behavior. Rates of heart disease rose nearly 3 percent between 2011 and 2014. Finally, among adults who make it to old age, Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory failure and age-associated culprits such as cancer played roles in their inevitable deaths. Death rates vary depending on where you live. People in rural areas and small towns are at greater risk of dying than people in cities with big hospitals and specialists. Overall, mortality risk is highest among adults with the least education, who are unlikely to have jobs that offer insurance, who live in areas where nutritious foods are not readily accessible, and who have more stress in their lives overall.
The simple solution to all of this may be the stuff of New Year’s resolutions. Medical research is clear that we should eat more vegetables and less sugar, exercise, get a good night’s rest and alleviate stress. But it’s not that simple. We need to meet basic mental and physical health care needs for those at greatest risk.
Because in 2017, even if we witness fewer celebrity deaths, we’ve got to look out for the rest of the population if we want to reverse the downward trend and get back on track for improved longevity.
Karen Fingerman is a professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.