Indicators of Despair Are Increasing Among Adults Entering Midlife

Among US adults entering midlife, indicators of despair, depression, drug use and alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation are rising, according to researchers from Vanderbilt University who published their findings in the American Journal of Public Health. 

In this cohort study, researchers obtained data on 18,446 individuals from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a nationally representative study of US adolescents in 1994. The sample of interest was limited to individuals who participated in one or more of five waves (1994-2017) and self-identified as non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Black, or Hispanic. The research team assessed change in indicators of despair from adolescence to adulthood, testing for differences by education, race/ethnicity, and rurality. They analyzed suicidal ideation, excessive drinking, and marijuana use using multilevel logistic regression while evaluating depressive symptoms with Poisson regression. 

“What we wanted to do in this paper was to examine whether the factors that may be predictive of those causes of death–substance use, suicidal ideation and depression–are isolated to that particular population subgroup, or whether it’s a more generalized phenomenon,” said Lauren Gaydosh, assistant professor of Medicine, Health and Society and Public Policy Studies at Vanderbilt University and lead author of this study, in a press release. 

Rising Despair Among All Groups 

Results of the study suggest that while depressive symptoms diminished from adolescence to late 20s, they increased as the cohort aged into their 30s. Of the sample population, blacks and Hispanics were found to have higher levels of depressive symptoms than whites, however, the pattern was consistent across every studied racial/ethnic group. An increase of prevalent drinking was most readily observed among Whites during late adolescence, declining throughout their late 20s and 30s, before rising again in the late 30s. Conversely, while the pattern of excessive drinking was lower for blacks, the results suggest a steadier life course increase in that subgroup. Hispanics, like whites, experienced heavy drinking in their early 20s, before a decline, some evidence pointing toward an increase in their 30s.  

Among all groups, marijuana use increased from adolescence to early adulthood before declining throughout the 20s and into the 30s, before rapidly rising going into the late 30s. Although whites had the highest probability of marijuana use in their 20s, the probably of use in the late 30s was more prevalent among blacks and Hispanics. 

Moreover, with respect to education, low-educated whites displayed consistently higher levels of suicidal ideation across the range than the other cohorts, while low-educated blacks reported the highest levels of depression and anxiety diagnoses. Furthermore, levels of prescription drug abuse were perceptibly higher in urban areas juxtaposed to rural areas. 

The researchers wrote that these results suggest that generally rising despair among the young adult cohort now reaching midlife that cuts across racial/ethnic, educational, and geographic groups may presage rising midlife mortality for these subgroups in the next decade.