Opinion | The locks protected the elderly. But at what cost to the health of young adults?

Covid-19 has mostly killed the elderly. But since the start of the pandemic, the all-cause death rate for young adults has risen by a greater percentage than the all-cause death rate for the elderly.

When I heard that statistic I thought it was a mistake. If Covid is ravaging the elderly population, how can it be the younger adults whose death rates have risen the most?

To see for myself, I downloaded the death-by-age totals in the United States from the National Center for Health Statistics. Here is a table based on those numbers:

The explanation for the anomaly is that the baseline death rate for young adults is very low, so even the large percentage increase represents fewer additional deaths than the more modest percentage increase in the death rate for the elderly. (The table shows deaths rather than death rates, but the percentage changes are roughly the same as long as there are no large changes in population size.)

One reaction to these numbers is to say they distract from Covid’s terrible toll on the elderly. But another reaction is that the rise in deaths among young adults is shocking in itself and needs to be looked at more closely. The table shows that the number of people between the ages of 25 and 44 who died from all causes in the United States in 2021 was 52% higher than the number of deaths in an average year from 2015 to 2019. a huge increase that would be all over the headlines if not for arguably the biggest tragedy of Covid deaths among older people.

A study published this month as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research calls the high death toll among young Americans “a historic but largely unrecognized health emergency.” He wonders if young adults have suffered “collateral damage” from policies such as lockdowns that were meant to protect the elderly.

Covid was not the most potent killer among adults under the age of 45, according to the study, led by Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago and Robert Arnott, president of the investment firm Research Affiliates in Newport Beach, California. Many of the excess deaths were indirectly caused by despair or boredom.

“Drugs, homicides, traffic accidents and alcohol-induced causes have killed tens of thousands more young adults than ever before,” the study said. “Deaths from various circulatory diseases and diabetes were also high. Suicides have not increased, although alcohol-related deaths and overdoses can also be considered consequences of self-destructive behavior. Deaths were not, on average, high among minors “.

Causes of death differed among adults aged 45-64, they found: “Their non-Covid mortality was also high, but with nearly all of the high causes associated with chronic conditions such as circulatory disease, diabetes, obesity or liver disease rather than murder or car accident ”.

They write: “All of this suggests that large and lasting changes in lifestyle habits designed to avoid a single virus have not only had ‘economic’ opportunity costs, but have also cost a surprisingly large number of young lives.”

I’m not sure I agree with the authors’ apparent implication that the US has gone too far in trying to shut down Covid, but whether you agree or not, it’s important to have the facts.

On a related topic, a reader of this newsletter, a retiree from New York who asked not to be identified, asked me to check if the Covid death toll would improve Social Security finances (excuse the blunt) by killing some. beneficiaries. The answer is unclear from the Social Security Trust Fund Trustees’ Annual Report for 2022, released June 2.

So I interviewed Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of Social Security. He said Covid’s long-term impact on trust funds should be less. One of the reasons, he said, is that many of the elderly people who died from Covid in the past two years had other health problems and would have died relatively soon from something else. Another reason is that after the death of a beneficiary, in many cases the spouse receives an increase in the survivor’s benefit that offsets part of the savings for the trust funds.

Goss said there are two competing factors for Covid’s long-term impact on beneficiaries’ mortality rates. One is that they will be inferior because people who survived in the short term were inherently healthier than those who died. The other is that death rates will be increased for those who did not die immediately after contracting Covid because many have been harmed to some extent and will die prematurely. These factors are likely to largely offset each other with little net effects on long-term mortality rates. “It will take years to determine if this is an appropriate assumption,” she said.


Responding to your Wednesday newsletter on the US tech sector, it doesn’t seem to me that the data the Hamilton Center provided you with provides much insight into the decline in US innovation capacity in advanced technology – or what to do about it besides Congressional lobbying. for more taxpayer funds for less innovative US companies and for imposing trade restrictions on more innovative foreign competitors. I recommend this semiconductor fabrication study and this perspective on how corporate financialization has undermined investment in innovation in the United States.

William Lazonick

Cambridge, Mass.

The writer is president of the Academic-Industry Research Network


“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

– James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961)


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