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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

David Brooks, "The Middle-Age Surge": Or Suicide Is Painless?



"Your face and body can now be fixed, of course. But it's very different out there now. Your finances won't last long. Your panel of observers are waiting for you to choose."

- Ventura, "Vanilla Sky," 2001

In his latest New York Times op-ed entitled "The Middle-Age Surge," David Brooks tackles the topic of middle-age. Brooks cheerfully writes:

"[A]nother profound but more hidden change is the altered shape of middle age. What could have been considered the beginning of a descent is now a potential turning point — the turning point you are most equipped to take full advantage of.

It is the moment when you can look back on your life so far and see it with different eyes. Hopefully you’ve built up some wisdom, which, as the psychologists define it, means seeing the world with more compassion, grasping opposing ideas at the same time, tolerating ambiguity and reacting with equanimity to the small setbacks of life.

By middle age you might begin to see, retrospectively, the dominant motifs that have been running through your various decisions. You might begin to see how all your different commitments can be integrated into one meaning and purpose. You might see the social problem your past has made you uniquely equipped to tackle. You might have enough clarity by now to orient your life around a true north on some ultimate horizon."

Meaning and purpose! A true north! How reassuring, particularly for someone like me . . . unless, nearing 62, I have already voyaged beyond the boundaries of middle-age and passed into the purgatory of  . . . gasp . . . old-age.

But wait! Is middle-age all that Brooks makes it out to be? As reported in a May 6, 2013 Psychology Today article entitled "White, Middle-Age Suicide In America Skyrockets" by Dale Archer M.D.:

"Suicide, once thought to be associated with troubled teens and the elderly, is quickly becoming an age-blind statistic. Middle aged Americans are turning to suicide in alarming numbers. The reasons include easily accessible prescription painkillers, the mortgage crisis and most importantly the challenge of a troubled economy. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention claims suicide rates now top the number of deaths due to automobile accidents."

A temporary blip owing to the economy? I don't think so. As more recently reported by Gina Kolata in a November 2, 2015 New York Times article entitled "Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds" (my emphasis in red):

"Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.

That finding was reported Monday by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who last month won the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, and Anne Case. Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids."

The "middle-age surge" or "suicide is painless" Take your pick.

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