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What’s behind the spike in death rates among young adults in Minnesota?

Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash
Mortality rates are rising in Minnesota, caused by a combination of an aging population and a rise in so-called “deaths of despair.”

If you pick up a newspaper and flip to the obituaries, you’ll mostly find the stories of long lives well-lived; of people with grandkids and great-grandkids, and veterans of wars fought long ago.

But if you’ve noticed more and more people on those pages whose lives were cut short long before old age, it’s not just your imagination.

Mortality rates are rising in Minnesota, caused by a combination of an aging population and a rise in so-called “deaths of despair.”

No age group has seen a larger increase in death rates than young adults, ages 25 to 34. Between 2010 and 2017, rates of death for this group rose by more than a third in Minnesota, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

The increase in deaths among young adults mirrors national trends, and represents the fastest increase in death rates of any age group in that time period.

Change in death rate by age bracket in Minnesota, 2010-2017
Source: Centers for Disease Control

That hasn’t escaped the notice of Dan Dahl, of Dahl Funeral Home in East Grand Forks and the former president of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association.

“The older I get, the younger everyone else gets. I’m 59, and it used to be when I was 35, 35-year-olds didn’t die, it seemed like. It kind of sticks out now the older you get,” he said. “We’re not supposed to be burying our kids, our kids are supposed to be burying us.”

Drug overdoses

Public health officials have been troubled to see that after decades of gains in U.S. life expectancy, the number peaked in 2014, followed by three years of declines through 2017, the most recent year of data available.

Spikes in three causes of death are largely to blame: drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease, and suicide. Two economists who identified the trend, particularly among middle-aged white Americans, coined the term “deaths of despair.” They pointed at economic insecurity and income inequality as possible causes.

But deaths of despair aren’t limited to middle-aged Americans. While liver disease caused by drinking is degenerative and generally affects older people, accidental drug fatal overdose rates nearly tripled in Minnesota between 2010 and 2017 for the 25 to 34 age group, from 8.5 deaths per 100,000 people to 22.1 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the CDC.

Unintentional drug overdose rate for 25 to 34-year-old Minnesotans, 2002-2017
Source: Centers for Disease Control

That’s largely due to the changing nature of the opioid epidemic, said Jon Roesler, an epidemiologist supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when opioids were first widely available, epidemiologists began to see an increase in people dying from liver disease caused by opioids that contained acetaminophen.

“They’d get addicted to the opioid and then they’d get a cold and take NyQuil. Then they’d take some Tylenol, and pretty soon, especially if they had any problems with alcohol, (they’d have) hepatotoxicity,” or chemically-driven liver damage, Roesler said. “That was the character of the opioid epidemic.”

Many also died taking opioids with benzodiazepines, generally used to treat anxiety, which suppresses their breathing and heart rate.

“Then it continued to morph and it moved from prescription to street opioids,” Roesler said, including heroin and fentanyl. With that came a shift young adult age group.

Law enforcement and medical professionals are finding fentanyl, a powerful drug that can kill in tiny amounts, laced in all sorts of drugs, sometimes unbeknownst to the user, causing a rising number of drug overdoses in Minnesota.

Rise in suicides

Also on the upswing in the 25-to-34 age group in Minnesota is suicides. Between 2010 and 2017, the age group’s rate of death by suicide rose from 14.5 deaths per 100,000 people to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, the continuation of a more long-term increase since about 2001.

The causes behind this increase are less clear, and less age-specific. “In general, all ages have been affected by increases in suicides,” Roesler said. “It’s pretty much increased just about every year from 2000 to 2017. It’s just been kind of relentless.”

Suicide rate for 25 to 34-year-old Minnesotans, 2000-2017
Source: Centers for Disease Control

While suicide rates among 25- to 34-year-olds have increased, they’ve increased slower than for older age groups, Roesler said — and might, in fact, be proof that the state’s suicide prevention strategies, which began in 2000 and have focused on youth and young adults, are actually working.

“Maybe we actually have some evidence that all of our suicide prevention work is making a difference, even though rates have gone up, in an age group (where there’s been the most prevention activity), rates have gone up the least,” Roesler said.

Preventable deaths

Dahl, of the funeral home in East Grand Forks, thinks part of the increase in suicide and drug rates among young adults is that life is harder for young people now than it used to be — it’s tougher to make a living; more expensive to raise a family. There’s more pressure.

“I think a lot of them are moving toward the opioids and drug addictions to not necessarily hide it but hopefully alleviate it,” he said.

He sees more families being transparent about how their loved ones died, in the hope — he guesses — that others can be educated and more deaths can be prevented.

Roesler prefers to call deaths caused by suicide, drug overdose and alcohol “preventable deaths,” rather than “deaths of despair,” because with the right interventions, there is hope that these types of deaths can be prevented.

And preliminary numbers on deaths in 2018 in Minnesota suggest some progress in prevention, he noted. “I’m very hopeful that when the final numbers come out, we will be seeing a decline in drug overdose deaths and in suicide deaths as well,” Roesler said.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/03/2019 - 10:30 am.

    We were told, ” you have to go to college to get ahead”, then saddled the millennial generation with $1.5 trillion in student debt, at the same time good paying jobs have been reduced in number by foreign labor pressures (H1B, illegal), automation and Artificial Intelligence, offshoring and because so many boomers are not able to retire.

    We were told globalization would lift all boats but only the 1% have boats and the rest of us are expected to tread water.

    We were told this techno-industrial age would lead to ever more leisure, but instead we got more work for less pay and benefits.

    We were told technology would improve air, water and soil quality but the oceans are filling up with plastic, polluted soil is washing out to sea, you can’t swim or fish in most of the waters, pollinators are going extinct, while the climate is changing radically.

    We were told we need a strong military and surveillance to keep us safe, a war on terror was necessary, but then terror in the form of public shootings happens regularly, guns are blamed but never a culture that excuses eternal war profiteering, spending 3 trillion a year on war/security, sacrificing basic infrastructure, health in people or nature, education.

    We were told, work hard and skill up and things would work out, but opportunity has collapsed for most people, and while we need the support of community, this cult of individualism with consumer driven economics hollowing out all that is sacred, we find ourselves bereft of meaning.

    We have been told we are important, we are special, yet we see that only corporations, banks and billionaires are treated as such, while we get treated like machines and numbers.

    Did I miss anything?

    • Submitted by Howard Miller on 12/03/2019 - 12:03 pm.

      Yes. You missed that you believed that you were special when you were told you were. Boomers got the same message, perhaps even more loudly and persistently. We just were cynical enough to shrug those messages off (‘never trust anyone over 30’ e.g.) and go on and live life with limited expectations. We failed to prepare our children to do likewise; for this shortcoming, we are responsible. Maybe Mr. Myagi wasn’t the best role model to put out there.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 12/04/2019 - 08:27 pm.

      Except that I have seen young people who have every financial advantage and parent support and are still suicidal or using drugs. So yes, often times it’s more than that. Research has also shown the lack of connectedness, social media making everyone think they need to look like a Peloton commercial and for many a shame about asking for help.

    • Submitted by Phil Uhrich on 12/05/2019 - 01:17 pm.

      Did you forget anything? Yes, Wall Street getting handed $29 trillion dollars for destroying our job prospects and both worthless parties making student debt non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/06/2019 - 08:25 am.

      All good points. We are told we are so very special, at the same time we are implicitly shamed by the culture for not being wealthy/perfect, at the same we have tranferred wealth from the poor to the wealthy for forty years, with about 30 trillion in social welfare for the big banks and a bottomless trillion dollar piggy bank for military profiteers.

  2. Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 12/03/2019 - 10:43 am.

    How stunning that you barely touched on race in this important story when it’s threaded through almost every other thing that Minn Post reports.

    White privilege is not only nonsense, it’s dangerous. Telling white men that they’re the problem has consequences.

  3. Submitted by Drew Gmitro on 12/03/2019 - 04:56 pm.

    Brought up a generation of entitled children that have become adults that cannot cope with “life”. Being constantly told “how special and unique” you are, “everyone gets a trophy and is a winner”, has consequences, and you’re seeing it today. Ringing up massive student loan debts to get a degree that THEY choose, that won’t pay them squat upon graduation, is a tough life lesson for these entitled millaneals. They can’t accept that they screwed up and no one is there to bail them out (accept Socialists Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren). They accept zero personal responsibility for their problems and want to blame everyone, and everything else, but themselves. They turn to “self medicating” all while our bankrupt Governments push “medical Marijuana” because they see massive tax revenues from it. Sorry kids. Time to take some responsibility for your actions and decisions and bail yourself out. Every generation has in the past. It’s your turn now. No sympathy here.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/04/2019 - 12:41 am.

      “Brought up a generation of entitled children that have become adults that cannot cope with “life”. Being constantly told “how special and unique” you are, “everyone gets a trophy and is a winner”, has consequences, and you’re seeing it today.”

      Strange, who’s fault was that? Or is Boomer narcissism so complete that they think they raised themselves? Last I checked, it wasn’t the Millenials who were (quite accurately) dubbed the “Me” generation.

      • Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 12/04/2019 - 09:10 am.


        College costs went up immensely due to over-subsidization of student loans. Thank you Bill Clinton.

        The lack of high-paying jobs for Millenials is thanks to Big Tech + Chamber Republicans + open borders Democrats handing out visas to foreign workers.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/06/2019 - 12:49 am.

          Not sure where you get THAT from my commentary, but seeing as how you are throwing liberals, conservatives, AND libertarians under the bus (surely you understand the ideological leanings of the “Big Tech” you malign), who exactly are you looking towards for salvation? What, are the religious fanatics gonna start employing everyone now? They seem to be the only folks you’ve got left under your personal “tent” as it were.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/04/2019 - 08:03 am.

      So no responsibility for higher education that, like the financial industry and Health Care, has become a predatory racketeering enterprise?

  4. Submitted by Stephen Hodder on 12/03/2019 - 10:08 pm.

    You all missed the overall problem. The histories of cultures can be described by and separated into three periods. The Ascendant, The Golden Ade and The Decline. Our culture is in the last stage. Our decline began sometime between the end of WWII and the election of Ronald Reagan. It can be defined by it’s main symptoms. Moral decline which has allowed a huge disparity in the distribution of wealth and resources. We have seen a huge wealth transfer from the working classes and the poor to the top few percent. This has allowed that group to purchase and control or government and stack the deck in favor of only that top 1%. Real wages taking in both inflation and lower prices, (which came with lower quality goods), have been declining since 1970. The federal minimum wage is the same today as it was in 2009. The gig economy says, “We’ll pay you just when we need you and the rest of the your on your own”.

    We have caused wars costing hundreds of thousands of lives around the globe. Yes we were attacked on 9/11 but we were attacked by someone who had been our ally against the Russians in Afghanistan and he was motivated by one thing; the presence of American soldiers on the Arabian Peninsula. If we hadn’t been there, that attack would not have happened. The first Gulf war was caused by inept diplomacy which led to Saddam Hussein believing that we agreed with him in believing that Quaite was rightfully part of Iraq. The second Gulf war was based on a lie, weapons of mass destruction, put forth by Dick Cheney for the sole purpose of making money.

    I could go on for 10,000 words but this is not he forum for that. Almost every problem cited above, and they are all real, are just the symptoms of this greater decline. A brief survey of world history would indicate that this is an inevitable and unavoidable progression of history. It’s just the way we humans conduct our affairs. To see how far down this path we have gone ones needs only look at the condition of our federal government and the amoral degenerate we have as our leader. What really reflects our failure as a populace is the fact that his most loyal supporters, the bedrock of his cult of personality are the very working class people who are being ground up under the weight of this decline.

    Drug addiction, poverty, suicide, crime, a declining life expectancy, denial
    0f what we are doing to our planet are only the symptoms of our sickness. Jimmy Carter, probably the last honest man to occupy the white house told us we had a “Great Malaise in America”. For his trouble we voted him out and replaced him with Ronald Reagan who promised us a “New morning in America”. It was easier to believe that fiction than to try to change but that is what has always happened in this world.

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