Pandemic age shift: Younger people made up the bulk of COVID-19 deaths in 2021

BOSTON — More young people are dying from COVID-19 infection, according to a new study analyzing the pandemic death toll in the United States. Since 2020, the infectious virus claimed over a million lives alone, with most deaths initially occurring among older adults. However, new research suggests the number of deaths has decreased in elderly populations while increasing in younger groups.

One of the reasons why older adults were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is because of their immune vulnerability due to age and other pre-existing conditions compromising their health. In 2021, however, vaccines became available. Given the high threat among geriatric populations, older adults made up a good portion of the early vaccinated population. They also were more likely than other age groups to adhere to other public health measures to prevent viral spread.

“There were a lot of changes between the first and second years of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says corresponding author Mark Czeisler, PhD, a medical student at Harvard Medical School and organizer of The COPE Initiative at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in a media release. “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. But prior to our study, there was less attention on quantifying premature mortality associated with COVID-19 in 2021 versus 2020.”

Since its emergence in the states in March 2020, COVID-19 has maintained a spot in the top-five causes of death among U.S. adults. What’s changed is the age of adults it’s impacting. The researchers found this downshift in age pattern after analyzing the data in a different way, relying on Years of Life Lost (YLL) rather than mortality.

COVID patients are losing more years of their lives

The team categorized COVID-19 death data collected by the CDC into two time-points, March to December 2020 and the entire year of 2021. They compared the data to the 2017 estimated average lifespan of a person.

Given new public health measures and vaccine availability, COVID-19 deaths decreased by 20.8 percent in 2021 compared to 2020. However, the YLL increased by 7.4 percent. The biggest contributor to the increased years of life lost is the age of people who succumbed to the disease. More specifically, the median age of COVID-19 deaths went from 78 years in 2020 to 69 years in 2021.

Overall, the YLL per COVID-19 deaths skyrocketed by 35.7 percent. Meanwhile, the other 15 leading causes of death have been stable over the past two years, with years of life lost not changing more than 2.2 percent.

“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,” says Czeisler. “Understanding the factors that contribute to this age shift is critical as we continue developing our knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Several study limitations may have affected the results. The first is that the study took place before officials finalized 2021 death records. Additionally, researchers did not assess individuals for any additional comorbidities, vaccination status, or other health-related factors.

The findings appear in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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