About 600,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the coronavirus outbreak began. But behind that huge figure is a more nuanced one that brings the human toll of the virus into even sharper relief.
In addition to the overall number of deaths from a given cause, researchers can estimate the number of “life years” lost due to it – a statistic that takes life expectancy into account.
For example, if a person with a life expectancy of 80 dies at age 50, they are estimated to have lost 30 years of life. Examining this statistic underscores the extent to which the virus has cut Americans’ lives short.
In 2020 alone, the coronavirus was responsible for about 380,000 deaths and roughly 5.5 million years of lost life in the United States, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That number of life years lost is more than the number lost in a typical calendar year to all accidents combined – including traffic accidents, drownings, firearm accidents, drug overdoses and other poisonings – and more than triple the number of life years lost in a normal calendar year due to liver disease or diabetes.
The same figures reveal that the average number of life years lost per U.S. coronavirus death in 2020 was 14 years. This is comparable to the average number of years lost per heart disease death in the U.S. in 2019 (13 years) and somewhat lower than the average number of years lost per cancer or diabetes death that year (17 years). But it is far below the average number of years lost per liver disease (24 years) or accidental death (31 years).
Life expectancy increases with age
The large number of life years lost due to COVID-19 in 2020 may not be widely appreciated because people ages 65 and older account for a large majority (approximately 80%) of U.S. coronavirus deaths to date. Some observers have raised the point that the public may believe that these older Americans were nearing the end of their lives anyway.
But life expectancy statistics tell a different story. In fact, life expectancy increases with age. While babies born in the U.S. today can expect to live to be 79, Americans who are 65 today can expect to live to 85, according to the United Nations World Population Prospects. Current 80-year-olds, in turn, can expect to live to an average age of 90.
The pandemic, in other words, has killed many Americans who otherwise might have expected to live for years or even decades longer. A 65-year-old who dies from COVID-19 might ordinarily have expected to live until 85 – a difference of two decades, or roughly a quarter of the average American’s total expected life span at birth.
Average life spans change with age as common causes of death shift over time. By the time a U.S. adult lives to 65, they are unlikely to die from some common causes of death among younger people, such as homicide, pregnancy complications or congenital diseases. At the same time, older Americans are more likely than their younger counterparts to die from causes including heart disease, Alzheimer’s – and now COVID-19.
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