More People Are Feeling Despair and it Might Be Killing Us

A study of over 18,000 Americans found that despair increases in your 30s and could be leading to an increase of "deaths of despair."
Woman laying down with hands covering face

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Study finds that despair increases in our 30s

Have the past few years' events (and social media reaction to those events) pulled you into a pit of despair? You are not alone, according to a new paper in the American Journal of Public Health titled “The Depths of Despair Among US Adults Entering Midlife.”


The research found that despair increases when people hit early-middle age, our 30s and 40s, and that this despair might be a contributing factor to the growing number of health problems that Americans are facing.

The authors were motivated to do this research when a troubling 2016 National Center for Health Statistics report said that life expectancy at birth had declined for the first time since 1993, and that death rates for 8 out of 10 of the leading causes of death had increased—especially among white people with low education levels (high school degree or lower). Since 2016, life expectancy has continued to drop.

What is causing this increase in deaths? One reason might be so-called “deaths of despair,” which are when someone dies from suicide, drug overdose, or alcohol-related diseases, says Lauren Gaydosh, an assistant professor at the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, and first author of the new work.

“We wanted to know whether behaviors and mental health conditions that would be predictive of those causes of death are rising,” Gaydosh says. They also wanted to confirm whether it was true that these “deaths of despair” were concentrated in one specific demographic.

Gaydosh and her colleagues used long-term data that tracked over 18,000 Americans who were teenagers in 1994, and looked for changes in “indicators of despair” as the teens grew up into adults. The indicators of despair were anything “that manifests itself in feelings of sadness, thoughts of defeat, and self-destructive behaviors,” Gaydosh tells me. They measured this by asking people questions over time about depression, thoughts of suicide, and heavy alcohol and weed use.


They found that, as the teens aged toward midlife, indicators of despair increased—not just for white people but everyone in their sample, which included black and Hispanic people. (Asians and other ethnic groups were excluded because of small sample sizes.) Depressive symptoms decreased from adolescence to late 20s, but increased as the subjects aged into their 30s; the Black and hispanic subjects had higher levels of depressive symptoms than the white subjects.

Gaydosh can’t say for sure why these indicators of despair are increasing—that was out of the scope of their study. But she thinks it’s possible that something about this phase of life is particularly stressful with work, family, and social obligations. “Other researchers have suggested that it is a result of deteriorating labor market conditions and eroding social connections,” she says. Also of note is the years in which their research took place: Data was collected during periods of time that included 9/11, the Great Recession, and the 2016 presidential election.

What is clear is that despair affects us all to varying degrees, and figuring out what causes it and what to do about it can help overall public health. “Our findings are consistent with a general pattern of worsening health and widening health inequalities in the United States,” Gaydosh says. “Targeting health interventions to the entire population is necessary to address the pattern of increasing despair.”


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Just thinking about coffee could give you a slight buzz

My stomach decided about five years ago that it would not tolerate coffee anymore, and after a year of suffering from acid reflux, I dutifully switched to green tea. While I love my morning matcha, I do sometimes miss the buzzy high of a strong cup of coffee. A new study in Consciousness and Cognition suggests that perhaps I can still access some of that feeling—not by drinking coffee, but simply by thinking about it.

Coffee is more than a beverage, it also has cultural beliefs and associations tied to it, says Eugene Chan, a senior lecturer in marketing at the Monash Business School in Australia and first author of the paper. “People also have lay beliefs about what coffee and other beverages do, and these lay beliefs, psychologists have shown, can produce their own effects,” Chan tells me.

In the lab, they got people to think about either coffee or tea through a variety of tasks, like writing ads for either coffee or tea, or reading health articles about coffee or tea. The researchers then found the people who thought about coffee had higher levels of arousals, compared to the tea thinkers: they said they felt higher levels of arousal and their heart rates increased slightly. Because of this arousal, Chan says, their thinking styles were more focused and concentrated.

More research needs to be done to see if the study’s effects can be replicated, or how it might change for different kinds of coffee (coffee versus a latte) or kinds of tea (black versus green), or people with different cultural backgrounds (where coffee might hold different meaning). But overall, the study adds to the evidence that the food and drinks we consume do more than provide nutrition, or interact with our bodies physically. “Mere exposure to or reminders of them can affect how we think,” the authors wrote.


“Now we have greater insights into what exactly leads to the ‘buzz’ from drinking coffee,” Chan says. “That is, we show a different route for people to experience greater arousal and to be more focused or attentive, increasing our understanding of what coffee ‘means’ and how such meanings and meanings alone can impact us.”

Do we lose time when we blink?

Every time we blink, around every two to three seconds, we close our eyes. But we don’t see the world as being continually interrupted by flashes of darkness—our blinks are not only involuntary, but mostly unconscious too.

“Yet they alter the sensory input dramatically,” Ayelet Landau, a cognitive scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tells me. “Essentially, we spend a large portion of our wakeful hours in darkness—and we don't even notice it.”

In a new study in Psychological Science, Landau and her colleagues looked to see if all these dark moments we are unaware of interfere with our perception of time. They found evidence that we do lose a bit of time when we blink.

They asked 22 participants to do two tasks: look at an image and listen to a recording, and then guess how long they had done both. The researchers also recorded their blink times. They found that the subjects estimated less time when they blinked while they were looking at it. The amount of time lost during the visual task roughly matched how long a person’s blink was—people who had longer blinks, lost more time. When subjects were asked to guess the duration of what they listened to, rather than saw, the researchers didn’t observe the same underestimation.


In previous research, Landau says scientists have found that when we blink, visual areas of the brain are suppressed. A larger question their experiment gets at is whether our senses, like sight, inform our perception of the passage of time. “By investigating what happens to our sense of time during a blink, we can indirectly examine how time is experienced when brain regions processing vision are less active,” she explains.

Their findings provide evidence that our perception of time might be at least somewhat rooted in the five senses and what we see, rather than being an independent function of the brain.

And should we worry about all our time lost to blinking? “I suppose we can live with the loss of a tenth or a fifth of a second every few seconds,” Landau says.

Your weekly science and health reads

The Healing Power of Gardens. By Oliver Sacks in The New York Times.
We are lucky to continue to have posthumous writings from the great Oliver Sacks, even years after his death. In this essay, Sacks muses about the calming effect of gardens—on himself and on people with neurological disorders.

There's a gold-standard treatment for opioid addiction, one of America's top killers. What keeps treatment centers from using it? By Francie Dep in Pacific Standard.
For this piece, Dep spent months looking through state and federal data for centers in California that said they treated opioid addiction but didn’t use medication treatment.

How a tiny endangered species put a man in prison. By Paige Blankenbuehler in High Country News.
“Trent’s underwear still floated in the water. The group huddled around for a closer look. In the pool, a single bright blue pupfish was also floating on the surface—dead.”

The Helmet That ‘Resets’ Your Brain. By James Hamblin in The Atlantic.
It could help people with depression, but it also costs $12,000.

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