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Fun With Statistics

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2016-06-16


"Death Rate on the Rise for Middle-Aged White Americans" is one of those headlines that catches your attention, especially if you happen to be a middle-aged, white American. The headline it's a few months old refers to a study published late last year, from Princeton University, that showed that while most Americans have shown sharp decreases in death rates since 1999, white, middle-aged Americans have shown a marked increase. Since I'm planted square in the middle of the demographic cited, I read the article with interest and a certain amount of ghoulishness, wondering, as I do in these instances, about the certainty of my imminent demise as predicted by the new statistics.

What I learned was, I'm probably going to buy it via drug overdose, alcoholism, liver disease, or suicide. Those are the four main contributors to the sudden spike in mortality rates in my demographic, and it's notable that all reflect (or represent) a high degree of unhappiness or self-destruction. As one writer pointed out in the cnn,com article, it almost seemed there was an "epidemic of hopelessness" in this particular group. My group.

The article laid out possible explanations for this new hopelessness, including the economic recession and the general increase in debilitating health conditions (diabetes, obesity, high-blood pressure), but didn't draw any specific conclusions. It also mentioned the explosion in opioid addictions in the same time frame, and the shocking number of prescription overdoses in the United States, and at this point I guess I stopped pondering the national trends and the big picture and started focusing on stuff I knew about, specific things, anecdotal information that I've been gathering. Things that have happened to my friends. Stories I've been told. And a few highly incriminating personal experiences, which I will now attempt to dance around.

Ever take an unprescribed medication? For like, say, lower back pain? Right, me neither. In most states it's a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1000 fine. It's dangerous and potentially life-threatening and you shouldn't do it. God knows I've never done it. But let's get back to that lower back pain. Back pain is a really, really common affliction. Some reports estimate that 80% of all Americans suffer some form of back pain. It's the second most common reason people seek medical attention. Stats indicate that every 15 years or so, you'll suffer back pain severe enough to put you under a doctor's care.

Let it be known that I am a typical American. In my early 30s I ruptured a disc in my back trying to move a trash compactor (remember those?) Ouch. That was a drag. I went to my doctor, got the MRI (which was scary as hell), the doctor showed me the result, he made that "squashed jelly donut" metaphor that back doctors love. For my recovery he scheduled some physical therapy and he also prescribed Vicodin and muscle relaxers and a steroid, to boot. The Vicodin didn't really take away the pain, it just made me a little goofy, but it was effective in that it made me indifferent to the pain. Like, I know this hurts, but I'm so glazed I don't really care. Not the healthiest mind set to carry. After a week or so I started to resent my diminished condition, I hated feeling that my cognition was compromised, I felt thick and slow-headed like one of those callers on right-wing radio programs arguing against gun control. I needed my wits about me again, so I disposed of the pills and focused on physical rehab, diet, and exercise. Slowly but surely I regained my health.

So let's jump ahead a few years, not the statistically relevant "15," but a few more. A month ago I was trying to wedge my daughter into that infernal car seat and I twisted my torso and suddenly sproing, doink, my back went out again. I've had little flare-ups over the years, but this was a biggie, almost immediately I recognized that I needed to attend to this problem pronto.

Unfortunately a doctor's visit was out of the question, for a change in employment had left us without health coverage for a few weeks. I realized that ibuprofen and a stiff drink every night wasn't putting a dent in the pain. What to do, then? I wasn't going to take unprescribed medication, after all.

And of course, I didn't, but let's hypothesize that a woman I'm related to by marriage had some Hydrocodone left over from her childbirth recovery. (Hydrocodone= Vicodin, and a Fun Fact: 99% of the world's supply of hydrocodone in 2007 was consumed in the United States.) Now, this didn't happen, but let's hypothesize that I did take the pills for my back pain; I probably would have noticed that for some reason, I needed to take more than before. I wasn't a robust thirty-year old after all, I was older, creakier, everything hurt more. Perhaps I wasn't waiting the recommended three-four hours to take the next dose. Perhaps I didn't pay attention to the warning labels, either, and kept at my usual bourbon-on-the-rocks at night.

Again, none of this happened, but I can imagine if it did, I might have gotten a little scared about my back problem leading to an even bigger problem. I might have wondered that maybe I should just tough it out with ice packs and reduced physical activity and leave the pills on the shelf. Or, better yet, to take the pills away to a place where they could be disposed of properly. Theoretically I can imagine this entire scenario. A scenario where I decided that maybe I should do my best to try to escape the hopelessness of my demographic.

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