One of the world’s leading economists has warned of a rise of “deaths of despair” in Britain, revealing that suicide, drug abuse and alcoholism are now claiming more middle-aged lives than heart disease.
Sir Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, told Sky News that there is a risk the UK will follow in America’s footsteps and faces a sharp increase in self-inflicted deaths as people deal with increasing economic and socially isolation.
Sir Angus famously shed light on the problems faced in much of the US, where prescription drug abuse has risen to worrying levels.
Together with his wife, Anne Case, he published a pioneering report into what they called “deaths of despair” – suicide, alcohol related illnesses and drug abuse – which have risen sharply in the US.
Now for the first time he has, together with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), done the same analysis on the UK, where he says a similar trend is beginning to emerge.
He says that among Britons aged 45 -54 the number of deaths of despair per 100,000 people has risen from just over 20 in 1993 to 43 in 2017.
That puts it above heart disease, historically one of the biggest killers in that age group. It claimed 40 lives per 100,000 in 2017.
Only cancer killed more people of that age group, with 90 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017.
Sir Angus warned that there was a chance the US experience, where experts now warn of a serious medical and socio-economic crisis, may be repeated in the UK.
“I think there’s a real danger (of that),” he said.
“There’s a long history of bad or good things happening or good things happening in the US especially with health and then the same happens here.
“That’s the big question about whether this is a precursor of what’s going to happen here or whether it’s not.
“In Britain you now see these rising deaths too. So for both men and women between 45 and 54 the number of deaths of despair is now more than the number of people dying from heart disease.”
Indeed, thanks in part to this trend the overall death rate for middle-aged people, which fell throughout the 90s and early 2000s, has begun to rise in the past five years.
Sir Angus is due to chair a major multi-year review for the IFS into inequality – not just divides in income and wealth but deeper gulfs in opportunity, education, political participation and other factors.
He says: “In the UK there may be a lot of despair. Blackpool seems to be one of the hotspots for this, the North East in general. This makes sense: these are places which have been left behind.”
He points out that because the UK has a national health service and tends to have fewer opioid prescriptions than in the US, the problems with deaths of despair are likely to remain lower than in America.
However, for many economists the phenomenon is further evidence of the forces which have fuelled alienation, isolation and a widespread frustration with the establishment on both sides of the Atlantic.
:: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.