Death Looks Different for Younger People According to New Studies

Socio-cultural shifts around gun violence, mental health, and drug use has young people dying at higher rates from known dangers. 

pills tumble from a prescription bottlePublic health officials focus extensively on reducing mortality rates especially as new challenges evolve. The last two decades has seen a surge in mental health issues, opioid overdoses, and gun violence, all of which share a connection to each other and these rates. Previously public health mortality reduction strategies focused heavily on vaccines, vehicle safety, as well as tobacco and alcohol education. Now officials are needing to pivot as younger individuals are suffering from new risks at higher rates.

According to a Stateline article, 37 states in 2022 have recorded the number one cause of death for individuals under the age of 40 as accidental overdose. Additionally, in 40 states and the District of Columbia, overdoses represented the biggest increase in death cause for young people. Substance related risks have been a public health focus historically; however, deaths associated with alcohol and tobacco use, while significant, have not taken place with the immediacy of opioid overdose deaths.

For even younger age groups, recent research from the CDC has shown that the new leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens is now firearms. This shift to guns taking the lead is shown to have happened back in 2020 when firearms overtook car accidents for children ages 1 to 17. The Kaiser Family Foundation updated an article on the topic with new information from 2023 just this past July to show how firearm deaths are tracking for youth across the country even since 2020.

Depending on the location, a common and long-standing number one cause of death for younger age groups was often and overwhelmingly, vehicle accidents. The Kaiser article also shows a ranking of common causes amongst this group with firearms at the top followed by vehicle accidents and cancer. Overdose deaths do not affect the 1-17 age group as significantly as the young adult population. While many other causes of death in younger people appear to be holding steady, firearms has made a sharp climb. Poisoning has also seen an unusual uptick relative to other causes of death, showing a sharp increase that appears to have begun in 2019.

These shifts also only represent a portion of the factors working against younger demographics. As recently covered on the Conduit Street blog, the U.S. Surgeon General updated the health advisory regarding social media use and children, which has been connected to increased rates of anxiety and depression in young people. Research will likely continue to illuminate the realities and put more demand on lawmakers to focus efforts towards resource management and effective policies to shape programs that work.