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Top Charts 21-02: Excess deaths in the US: 2020 compared to history

In this regular column, Club Vita’s longevity experts will help you visualize the often abstract world of longevity risk by introducing some of their favorite charts.

Question: How do the excess deaths that occurred in the US compare to historical figures?

Answer: In the available historical data going back to 1933, we have never seen the level of excess deaths as high as in 2020.

Excess deaths is a term used to quantify how many more people died in a given period than the number of people that were expected to die. This number will vary a little depending on what method has been used to calculate the number of people expected to die.

In the charts below, we have compared the actual number of deaths in the US to the expected number of deaths, calculated by taking the five-year running averages of observed annual deaths. Where the full five years of data is not available (e.g. 2020), simple linear regression over a proximate five-year period was used to obtain the expected number of deaths.

Source: Club Vita calculations based on data from the Human Mortality Database for years through 2018 and CDC data for 2019 and 2020. An estimate of under-reported deaths by certain states in the CDC data has been made for September-December 2020, based on COVID-19 deaths as reported by the COVID tracking project.

Key takeaways
  • The fluctuation of excess deaths in the US is remarkably stable. The large geographical area acts to average out effects of severe seasons in any one location and statistical noise is dampened out by the large population.
  • Even so, the number of deaths in 2020 was around 14.8% higher than expected.
  • This is significantly higher than any other year dating back to 1933, including the well reported H1N1 influenza epidemic in 2009/10, where overall there were actually fewer deaths in the US than expected.

The key question is: What will happen now?

  • Will the number of deaths quickly bounce back to pre-pandemic levels after successful deployment of the vaccine?
  • Or will we see continued heightened mortality due to factors such as lingering health effects of the pandemic, knock-on effects to the economy and health services, or mutations to the virus making the vaccine less effective?
  • Or could we even see a drop in mortality rates due to factors such as a survivorship effect, innovations in healthcare and vaccine technology or a renewed appreciation for respiratory hygiene?

What do you think? Please post your questions in our Friends of Club Vita discussion group on LinkedIn.

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