June 13 (UPI) -- Substance abuse resulting from "deaths of despair" may not be to blame for declining life expectancy in the United States, a new study says.
New research argues poorer, less educated white adults are dying much earlier than more affluent white adults from internal diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancers, according to research published Thursday Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Life expectancy, the time a person is expected to live, went down from 78.7 years in 2016 to 78.6 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number remained unchanged for women, but dropped from 76.2 to 76.1 for men.
Many researchers have attributed this dip in life expectancy to the opioid crisis.
"The assumption that people are giving up neglects the existing research that shows the engaged and tenacious ways people often deal with life challenges," Arline Geronimus, a researcher at University of Michigan and study lead author, said in a news release.
For the study, the researchers analyzed deaths caused by opioids, cardiovascular disease, HIV, and lung or other cancers for non-Hispanic blacks and whites from 1990 to 2015. They ranked the people who died by education level and gender.
"These findings suggest that, rather than giving up in the face of hopelessness, less-educated Americans may be losing ground for exactly the opposite reason -- because they work so hard, they bear the health consequences of years of stress," Geronimus said.
The researchers found deaths of despair -- those resulting from drug overdose, suicide and alcohol-related liver diseases -- widened the death inequality among white people with higher and lower education levels, particularly among men. Meanwhile, black people didn't have the same disparity, they said.
In recent years, some studies have claimed the economic downturn in the United States has led to Americans to using more drugs and alcohol, and committing suicide, in higher numbers, leading to a fall in overall life expectancy.
Geronimus says targeted marketing of opioids to white communities, overprescription of the drugs by doctors and a spike in fentanyl use have played some part in life expectancy decline. And suicides don't contribute largely to the decline, either, Geronimus says.
Rather, deaths from cardiovascular disease, non-lung cancers and internal illnesses may be causing life expectancy gaps between more and less educated white people to grow more widely.
"While addressing the opioid epidemic is urgent, we should not lose sight of the widening educational mortality gap attributed to cardiovascular disease, cancers and other internal causes," Geronimus said.