COVID-19 cost U.S. 9 million years of life expectancy

By John Commins

The COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 660,000 lives in the U.S. has also cut aggregate life expectancy here by more than 9 million years, according to a study published Monday in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study authors said their findings suggest that the mortality burden of COVID-19 is more substantial than previously thought.

“Beyond excess deaths alone, the COVID-19 pandemic imposed a greater life expectancy burden on persons aged 25 to 64 years, including those with average or above-average life expectancies, and a disproportionate burden on Black and Hispanic communities,” study lead author Julian Reif, PhD, and colleagues concluded.

With data from the Health and Retirement Study, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, and CDC and CMS data, University of Illinois and University of Southern California researchers used their Future Adult Model and Future Elderly Model to create a microsimulation that measured years of life lost (YLLs) and quality adjusted life years (QALYs) lost from the COVID-19 pandemic, by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and comorbidity.

The researchers measured YLLs and QALYs lost per 10,000 persons and included demographic information, along with obesity, smoking behavior, and other risk factors. They found that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in 9.08 million years of excess lost life through March 2021, with 4.67 million years lost by those aged 25 to 64 years.

The greatest toll was on Blacks and Hispanics, who lost more than twice as many QALYs per capita as Whites. The toll was especially high among Black and Hispanic men age 65 or older. The researchers estimate that 38% of excess deaths in the first year of the pandemic would have otherwise had average or above-average life expectancies for their subgroup.
“Measuring the mortality burden of the COVID-19 pandemic is about more than excess deaths,” the researchers said. “Focusing solely on excess deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic can underestimate its effect on young and middle-aged adults who have a longer life expectancy than older, sicker adults.”

“Understanding disproportionate mortality rates by race/ethnicity is also important. Calculating years of life lost (YLLs) and QALY by demographics and risk factors may provide greater perspective into the true mortality burden of the pandemic,” the researchers said.

Writing a corresponding editorial, Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health — who was not involved in the research — said the study may be lowballing the grim numbers because it analyzes deaths only through the middle of March 2021.

“In the months since, more than 120 000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and it is likely that the burden of disease has shifted to a younger population as older Americans have generally embraced vaccination,” Jha wrote. “Furthermore, measuring mortality yields an incomplete picture of the pandemic’s effect. Those who survive COVID-19 often face a long road to recovery and may endure chronic symptoms and disability.”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand. This story first ran on HealthLeaders Media. 

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