The death rate for American teenagers and young adults has been rising since 1960 while death rates for every other age group have declined, according to a newly published report of the U.S. surgeon general.
Auto accidents, murder and suicide have been killing the nation's young people between 15 and 24 years old, especially young men, in increasing numbers. Alarmed at the rise in deaths, public health experts are blaming a variety of factors -- among them teen-age drinking, unemployment, and even drivers education classes.
With the exception of a temporary dip attributed to the lowering of the nation's highway speed limit to 55 miles an hour in 1974, the death rate of 15-to 24-year-olds has climbed or remained the same in each of the last 18 years.
In 1960, the report said, 106 of every 100,000 young people in the age group died, compared to 120 per 100,000 last year. That represents a 13 percent increase in the death rate. For adults 25 to 64, the rate declined 16 percent during the same period, and there were similar or greater declines in all other age groups.
"What we're seeing . . . is an epidemic of deaths that has a direct relationship to drinking," said Dr. J. Donald Millar, assistant director of the federal Center for Disease Control. Miller told a group of health promotion workers in Virginia Beach recently that rising alcohol consumption in the 15-to-24 age group contributes to all four major causes of death among young people: auto accidents, other accidents, suicides and homicide.
Young men in 1977 were three times as likely to die as young women. And while auto accidents were the leading killer of white, homicide was the most common cause of death among nonwhites.
Motor vehicle accidents -- half of them alcohol related -- accounted for more than a third of the nearly 48,000 deaths among young people in 1977, the most recent year for which a breakdown was available. All other kinds of accidents ranked second among the causes of death, followed by suicides and homicides.
Suicides were more than twice as common in the age group last year as they were in 1960. And the overall death rate for 15-to-24-year olds in the United States is 50 percent higher than in Great Britain, Sweden or Japan.
Millar theorized that alcohol is a major reason for the trend, pointing to a dramatic increase in drinking among high school students.
According to a survey by the National Insitute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 40 percent of the 12th-grade boys and 21 percent of the 12th-grade girls survyed in 1974 had encountered problems involving drinking, compared to 5 percent or few 12th graders in 1960. Forty-five percent of students surveyed in 1974 said they had been drunk at least once.
Millar said that, ironic as it seems, drivers education classes also may be partly responsible for the rise in accident deaths.
"By implementing drivers ed widely, we have made the individual driver who goes through the program a safe driver," he said. "But we've trained so many kids . . . the net effect was to increase accident fatalities by tremendously increasing the number of kids who drive at 16."
Unemployment, especially the disproportionately high unemployment rate among black youth, is a mjaor contributor to the death rate because it promotes frustration and aggressive behavior, said Dr. Harvey Brenner, a John Hopkins University Sociologist.
Brenner, who addressed the American Public Health Association at its meeting in New York this week, said the suicide rate rises with unemployment. m He suggested that joblessness also may increase accidents because angry, frustrated people are less able to concentrate. "Violence generally is a youthful approach to stress," he said.
The preponderance of male deaths reflects neglect by employers and society of young men's health needs, said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. John De Hoff. Young men are encouraged during school athletics to take risks and ignore pain, and such behavior carries over dangerously into the rest of their lives, he said. "Perhaps a new specialty of andrology" -- the male counterpart of gynecology -- "is needed," Dr. Hoff suggested.
Statisticians at the National Center for Health Statistics, which compiled the figures, were reluctant to be specific about the cases of the recently discovered trend.
"We're not really the "why" people; we're the "how many" people," said one.
Local statistics indicate that the age group's death rate in Virginia and the District of Columbia has roughly paralleled the national trend, although the figures for the District show a considerable improvement since the early 1970's. In Maryland, state statistics show the death rate for young people has been declining steadily since the late 1960s.
Among young men in the District, homicide ranked ahead of accidents as the major cause of death.
Nationally, the death rate for 15-to 24-year-olds rose from 106 deaths per 100,000 people in 1960 to a high of 129 deaths per 100,000 in 1969. It stayed at that level until 1974, when the imposition of the 55 mph speed limit brought about a lower death rate generally from motor vehicle accidents, the major killer of young people. In 1976, when the accident rate was lowest, deaths fell to 114 per 100,000. But by 1978, accidents fatal to young people had almost returned to the pre-1974 level, and the overall death rate had climbed to 120 per 100,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.