Diseases of despair on the rise; four main contributors identified in Pa. and the Midstate


(WHTM) — New research from Penn State College of Medicine and Highmark Health is shedding light on what’s called diseases of despair, which are rising significantly. Diseases of despair are defined as medical diagnoses involving alcohol-related disorders, substance-related disorders and suicidal thoughts and behavior.

“We documented the prevalence of diseases of despair in central Pennsylvania, but also across 12 million insurance carriers. We found a substantial increase in diseases of despair, 68% increase from 2009 to 2018 so pretty profound,” Daniel George, a lead researcher and Associate Professor of Humanities and Public Health Sciences, Penn State College of Medicine, said.

George is part of a team looking at how this impacts Pennsylvania and the Midstate specifically, following research out of Princeton that found a decline in life expectancy of middle-aged white men and women between 1999 and 2015, the first such decline since the flu pandemic of 1918.

“Diseases of despair have been characterized as mostly sort of a white, rural epidemic, but we’re seeing now that it’s expanded to people of color, and across other demographic boundaries,” George said.

Researchers with Penn State and Highmark identified hotspots in Pennsylvania with a high rate of diagnoses, related to diseases of despair.

“We pinpointed three areas within our hospital service area, in Allison Hill in Harrisburg, Elizabethville up north, and Lebanon, and we held focus groups,” George said.

They looked at what’s driving this despair. Researchers say they found four main contributors, financial instability, lack of infrastructure, a deteriorating sense of community and family fragmentation.

“It’s really a story of economic decline for the working class in the United States. We’ve seen tens of millions of jobs outsourced, which has really affected the old manufacturing sections of the economy,” George said.

The next steps of the research will focus more heavily on solutions.

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