A Wisconsin researcher has taken on the grim task of looking at how many years, cumulatively, COVID-19 has cut from people's lives. The answer just for last year, and for the U.S. and 80 other countries with good health statistics, is more than 20 million years.
The co-authors of the study came up with their lost life metric by subtracting the age of everyone who died of COVID-19 from the life expectancy in the dead person's country, taking gender into account.
One of the authors is UW-Madison Political Science Professor Adeline Lo, who calls herself a political methodologist, using statistical tools to study social science questions.
"I guess for some of us, who have been tracking the progression of the pandemic, the results are not surprising but sobering,” she says.
Lo says while it's common to focus on the percentage of very old people who have died, in Wisconsin only 54% of people who have passed away from COVID-19 are age 80 and up — the lost years metric really comes into play for people a bit younger.
“Roughly 50% of the years of lost life in the U.S. are within the age group of 55 to 75. For those COVID victims under 55, they account for 25% of the lives lost. So, we're losing human potential,” Lo says.
Across the 81 countries studied, Lo says there was an average of 16 years lost per death. In the U.S., the figure was a bit lower for men and women combined — 14.5 years. But males lost about a year and a half more than females.
Lo says the study tries to take into account that some who died of COVID-19 had serious diseases of the heart, lung or other parts of the body that might have killed them early.
The study also compares life years lost to COVID-19 to those typically lost to deadly flu.
"So, if we compare to the median flu year in the United States, the ratio is eight times more years of life lost to COVID versus the average flu year,” Lo says.
She says her study was not able to get the racial breakdown of COVID-19 deaths from enough countries to draw any conclusions. She hopes later research will provide that.
Lo also hopes statisticians are able to learn how the COVID-19 vaccines are helping people and reducing lost life years in 2021.