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‘Deaths of despair’ run high among Native Americans

A new analysis by UCLA researchers shows that Native Americans aged 45 to 54 have had the biggest increases in mortality in recent decades, and are dying at twice the rate of white people of the same age. (iStock/grandriver)

A new study has found that national midlife mortality data typically focused on white communities, leaves out Native Americans who experience higher rates. The study looked specifically at so called “deaths of despair.”

The analysis by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was published in the medical journal Lancet in late January.

Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton first coined the term “deaths of despair” in 2015. They were researching factors that accounted for a falling U.S. life expectancy among white people. Their findings showed that the fastest rising death rates among white Americans from 45 to 54 years old were from drug overdoses, suicide and alcoholic liver disease. 

But the analysis by UCLA researchers Joseph Friedman, Helena Hansen and Joseph Gone, said the 2015 study didn’t include data on Native Americans. If it had, they said, “deaths of despair” would not have been determined to be uniquely high among white people, but would have been shown to be uniquely high among Native Americans.

Mortality from overdose, suicide and alcoholic liver disease has collectively been higher among Native Americans than their white counterparts in every available year of data since 1999, the UCLA study said. Between 1999 and 2013 – the same timeframe of the Princeton study – the white midlife mortality rate increased by almost 10%, whereas midlife mortality among Native Americans rose by nearly 30%, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic widened the disparity even further, the study said. Through the pandemic, Native Americans had a mortality rate 1.8 times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites, according to a CDC report looking at data from 14 states.

In the report, the UCLA researchers called for more Native American visibility in health care data. They proposed guiding principles “to protect against exclusionary data policies” for Native populations – specifically enumerating Native people instead of relying on the often used category of “other,” and “centering tribal concerns in the collection, maintenance, and sharing of community data.”

“Narratives that center poor outcomes among white communities must be assessed critically, as they have historically overlooked and ignored higher rates of economic, social, and health inequities among [minority] populations in the USA,” the authors wrote. “This erasure of contemporary Native American presence and visibility plays a role in allowing health inequalities to go unchecked by depriving extreme disparities among Native American communities of the intense media and public attention that they deserve. Such attention – when properly contextualized through consistent reference to circumstances of Indigenous disadvantage – could play a role in galvanizing desperately needed additional health resources.”

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at