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Broken Systems, Not People

Broken Systems, Not People
Angelo Coppola

Something is killing a lot of Americans, and, surprisingly, it may have nothing to do with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

After about a century of near-Universal gains in American mortality rates, the tables have turned for one demographic: middle-aged white Americans. This is unheard of in the first-world, where despite all of the problems listed above, death rates have been steadily declining.

We may be in more physical and mental pain, getting more sick, overweight, and immobile…but we’ve also been getting better at staying alive. Apparently, except for middle-aged Whites since about 1999.

The increased mortality rate for this group is being blamed on alcohol, prescription and illegal drugs, liver disease, and suicide.

Like any other data, there’s a lot of nuance involved, and to gain a clearer picture we’ll have to dive a little deeper into the available information and check out some of the leading opinions. For example, in this case, it’s useful to know that the middle-aged Americans are in the 45 to 54 year-old age range, and those who are being affected most by the increased mortality are are those who have a High School diploma or less education.

This leads some to suspect the economy may be a major contributor. But doesn’t the economy also affect other age groups and ethnicities?

For Americans in general, we’ve been learning over the years that:

This list represents an overwhelming amount of human pain.

To make things worse, we’ve slowly watched our children become more obese and less healthy, too. When I was a kid, there were only one or two overweight kids in a typical classroom (I was always one of them). Type 2 Diabetes was called Adult Onset Diabetes. Now, it’s affecting people at younger ages, including about a quarter million kids.


A couple of points come to mind:

  1. It’s not the people who are broken, it’s the systems we’ve been squeezing ourselves into that deprive us from the natural world, natural food, natural movement, and the natural rhythms of life. I’m saying this without an iota of hippy nature worship, too (even if I do enjoy a good tree-hug from time to time!). Clearly, our synthetic, bought-and-paid-for solutions appear to be inadequate—and that we thrive in our natural world should be uncontroversial at this point.
  2. Even if these systemic problems aren’t our fault, so to speak, our health is still the responsibility of each of us. Sure, building better systems that will someday result effortlessly in healthy people is the ultimate goal (or, at least, it should be), but don’t let yourself die waiting for someone else to fix those things that affect you. First and foremost, take a good look at your life and make sure you’re providing yourself with the basics.

Just some food for thought.

  • John D

    Self-respect is a thing. It is as important and as real as air and water and real food. Chop away at it day after day after day and there will be nothing left, no will to fight or even to survive. Mental health is not just a result of the biome, it is also what happens when you look in the mirror and see yourself through the lens of your past. We are in an economic wasteland even as we are in a nutritional wasteland. When both go down together there will be victims. Millions of them.

    Sad to see also that when it is about white men it is suddenly news; black men have lived with this for hundreds of years on this continent. -jd

    • Thanks for posting your comment, John.

      Absolutely, mental health is important. And fulfilling lives. Not just work for work’s sake or to bring home a paycheck, but doing something that one actually feels “makes a difference.” I’m very curious to understand why it is hitting this group hard enough to reverse the trend in mortality rates.

      And I agree re: the black/white issue. Currently, Hispanics in the 45-54 age group have a much lower mortality rate than whites, but for black people it is non-trivially higher (although coming down).

      • John D

        I should add I enjoy your site and podcasts and “pegan-ism”, which by the way is also a “thing” and maybe a very important thing at that.

        • I agree regarding peganism or what I’m calling Plant Paleo.

          When something lines up so nicely with the existing dietary research, archaeological / evolutionary evidence, provides me with so many improvements over an already solid, real-food diet; and it’s also better for the environment…I’d definitely say there’s something to it.

  • Onlooker from Troy

    One thing I’ve learned more as I’ve gotten older is that everybody sees things through their own prism. Right now people in many different fields are theorizing about why this increased mortality in this demographic is happening, and most of them have beautifully crafted “just so” stories that sound right on. And their prescribed solutions are going to fix it all up; just give them the power and money and they’ll do it!

    I’m not picking on you here Angelo as you’ve not really tried to apply your own version of just-so story to it. I think you recognize the complexity of the problem.

    But really, these things are much too complex for us to figure out so easily. And we have to rid ourselves of the notion that we can “build better systems” and then we can fix everyone; especially in a top-down manner from a big central govt of bureaucratic agencies.

    We have to fix ourselves and then a new system will evolve; just as the broken system evolved.

    There wasn’t a master plan with a big conspiracy of evil people at the head. It was a hugely complex process of people acting in their own interests and people acting out of ignorance.

    I could go on and on, and I think you’d probably basically agree with me Angelo (I think that’s reflected in your point #2). But many people continue to think that if we just get the right laws in place and the right politicians (who surely won’t be self-serving and corrupt THIS time!) that we can fix all these problems right up. All the problems that evolved in just that kind of system in the first place.

    It’s Sisyphean in nature (or maybe more Lucy, Charlie and the football), and I think we have to rid ourselves of that destructive impulse. But I’ll shut up now. 🙂