Covid-19 has killed mostly old people. But since the pandemic began, the rate of death from all causes for younger adults has risen by a bigger percentage than has the rate of death from all causes for old people.
When I heard that stat I thought it had to be a mistake. If Covid is ravaging the older population, how could it possibly be that it’s younger adults whose death rates have risen by the most?
To see for myself, I downloaded death totals by age in the United States from the National Center for Health Statistics. Here’s a table based on those numbers:
The explanation for the anomaly is that the baseline death rate for younger adults is very low, so even the big percentage increase in it represents fewer additional deaths than the more modest percentage increase in the death rate for older people. (The table shows deaths rather than death rates, but the percentage changes are about the same as long as there are no big changes in the size of the populations.)
One reaction to these numbers is to say that they distract from the awful toll of Covid on older people. But another reaction is that the increase in deaths among younger adults is shocking all by itself and needs to be looked at more closely. The table shows that the number of people ages 25 through 44 who died from all causes in the United States in 2021 was 52 percent higher than the number who died in an average year from 2015 to 2019. That is an enormous increase that would be all over the headlines if not for the arguably greater tragedy of Covid deaths among older people.
A study released this month as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper calls the elevated death toll among younger Americans “a historic, yet largely unacknowledged, health emergency.” It asks whether young adults suffered “collateral damage” from policies such as lockdowns that were meant to protect older people.
Covid was not the most potent killer among adults under the age of 45, according to the study, which was conducted by Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago and Robert Arnott, the chair of the investment company Research Affiliates in Newport Beach, Calif. Many of the excess deaths were indirectly caused by despair or boredom.
“Drugs, homicides, traffic fatalities, and alcohol-induced causes killed tens of thousands more young adults than they had in the past,” the study says. “Deaths from various circulatory diseases and diabetes were also elevated. Suicides did not increase, though alcohol-related deaths and overdoses might also be considered consequences of self-destructive behaviors. Deaths were not, on average, elevated among minors.”
The causes of death were different among adults aged 45 to 64, they found: “Their non-Covid mortality was also elevated, but with almost all elevated causes associated with chronic conditions such as circulatory disease, diabetes, obesity, or liver disease rather than homicide or traffic accident.”
They write, “All of this suggests that large and sustained changes in living habits designed to avoid a single virus had not only ‘economic’ opportunity costs, but also cost a shockingly large number of young lives.”
I’m not sure I agree with the authors’ seeming implication that the United States went overboard in trying to shut down Covid, but whether one agrees or not, it’s important to have the facts.
On a related matter, a reader of this newsletter, a retiree in New York who asked not to be identified, asked me to look into whether the Covid death toll would improve the finances of Social Security by (pardon the bluntness) killing off some beneficiaries. The answer isn’t clear from the annual report of the trustees of the Social Security Trust Funds for 2022, which came out June 2.
So I interviewed Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of Social Security. He said that Covid’s long-term impact on the trust funds is expected to be minor. One reason, he said, is that many of the older people who died of Covid in the past two years had other health issues and would have died relatively soon of something else. Another reason is that after a beneficiary dies, the spouse gets an increased survivor’s benefit in many cases that offsets some of the savings for the trust funds.
Goss said there are two competing factors for the longer-term impact of Covid on death rates of beneficiaries. One is that they will be lower because the people who survived in the near term were inherently healthier than those who died. The other is that death rates will be increased for those who did not die soon after contracting Covid because many were damaged by it to some degree and will die prematurely. These factors are likely to be largely offsetting with little net effect on death rates in the longer term. “It’s going to take years for us to determine whether that is an appropriate assumption,” he said.
The readers write
Responding to your newsletter on Wednesday about the U.S. tech sector, it does not seem to me that the data that the Hamilton Center supplied to you provide much insight into the decline of U.S. innovative capability in advanced technology — or what to do about it beyond lobbying Congress for more taxpayer funds for less innovative U.S. corporations and imposing trade restrictions on more innovative foreign competitors. I recommend this study of semiconductor fabrication and this perspective on how corporate financialization has been undermining investment in innovation in the United States.
The writer is president of the Academic-Industry Research Network
Quote of the day
“Anybody who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
— James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961)
Have feedback? Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.