Deaths related to the COVID virus have taken over a million American lives since March 2020. Although things are getting better and the death rate from the virus has gone down, there is a disturbing new trend — the death rate among younger people has risen.
In 2021 there were significantly more deaths and people infected with COVID at an earlier age than the year before, a new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston has found. The researchers report that the median age of Covid-19 deaths dropped from 78 years old in 2020 to 69 years old a year later in 2021.
The Harvard Medical School researchers compared the number of deaths from March to December of 2020 against mortalities from March to December of 2021 using the CDC Wide-ranging ONline Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) database. Average life expectancies were estimated using the 2017 World Population Prospects and World Health Organization Global Health Estimate.
Their analysis showed that the median age of Covid-19 deaths dropped from 78 years old in 2020 to 69 years old a year later in 2021.
“A shift in COVID-19 mortality to relatively younger people in the second pandemic year contributed to markedly increased premature mortality from this increasingly preventable death.”
Good news, right? Well, not entirely. When a measure known as Years of Life Lost or YLL was applied, the impact of the COVID-19 death rate rose. Years of Life Lost is used to emphasize specific causes of death affecting younger age groups, estimating the average time a person would have lived had he or she not died prematurely.
As a result, the authors found that, “[D]espite 20.8% fewer COVID-19 deaths during March to December 2021 than during March to December 2020, YLL due to COVID-19 increased by 7.4% as the age distribution of decedents shifted downward (that is, to relatively younger persons)…Accordingly, YLL per COVID-19 death increased by 35.7%”
An upside remains: Overall, there were nearly 21 percent fewer COVID-19 deaths in 2021 versus those lost in 2020. The investigators point to three main reasons for this general decrease in mortality: 1) the availability of vaccines; 2) advances in treatments; and 3) changes in behavior.
“There were a lot of changes between the first and second years of the COVID-19 pandemic,” corresponding author of the study, Mark Czeisler, PhD, medical student at Harvard Medical School, organizer of The COPE Initiative, and member of the Brigham’s Department of Psychiatry, said in a press statement.
“Researchers have sought to understand the impacts of advances in COVID-19 treatments, immunity due to vaccinations and infections, and scientific knowledge of the COVID-19 virus and emerging variants,” he added. “But prior to our study, there was less attention on quantifying premature mortality associated with COVID-19 in 2021 versus 2020.”
Telling a bigger story of mortality and loss during the pandemic.
The authors of the letter, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, surmise that after the higher 2020 COVID-19 deaths among older adults, this population was more likely to adhere to medical recommendations by getting vaccinated and sticking to stricter behavioral changes like not socializing in large groups and wearing masks when in close quarters in public.
The analysis had a few limitations. For instance, 2021 death records are not finalized until 12-months post-mortem. Plus, the individuals who passed away were not studied for other co-morbidities (such as dealing with diabetes or drug addiction while battling COVID).
But the researchers suggest that the data they compiled offered a bigger story of mortality and loss during the pandemic than had been previously studied. They hope their investigation sparks further interest in looking into other possible contributing factors for the troubling trend.
“A shift in COVID-19 mortality to relatively younger people in the second pandemic year contributed to markedly increased premature mortality from this increasingly preventable death,” said Czeisler. “Understanding the factors that contribute to this age shift is critical as we continue developing our knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
No matter what your age, you should protect yourself and others from becoming infected with COVID-19. We’ve heard these CDC suggestions before, but they are still the best ways to stay safe:
- Get vaccinated and stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.
- Everyone ages 2 years and older should properly wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public when in areas where the COVID-19 Community Level is high, regardless of vaccination status.
- Avoid poorly ventilated spaces and crowds.
- Test to prevent spread to others.
- Wash your hands often. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Clean high touch surfaces regularly or as needed and after you have visitors in your home. If someone is sick or has tested positive for COVID-19, disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
- Monitor your health daily.