Story at a glance
- The median age of COVID-19 deaths fell from 78 years old in 2020 to 69 years old in 2021.
- To better understand this shift, researchers assessed years of life lost among those who died from COVID-19.
- More than 1 million Americans have died from the disease since March 2020.
The proportion of young people who passed away from COVID-19 in 2021 surpassed that of 2020, marking a shift in the pandemic’s mortality dynamics.
That’s according to new research from investigators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Results also showed the median age of COVID-19 death decreased from 78 years in 2020 to 69 years in 2021.
“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,” said study co-author Mark Czeisler, a medical student at Harvard Medical School, in a release.
“Understanding the factors that contribute to this age shift is critical as we continue developing our knowledge of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
From March 2020 through October 2021, COVID-19 was among the top five causes of death for all U.S. adults.
However, in 2021, deaths among younger individuals increased and deaths in older individuals decreased. To understand the downward age shift in deaths, researchers calculated years of life lost (YLL) as opposed to mortality for March through December 2020, as well as for the same time frame in 2021.
By calculating YLL, investigators were able to assess premature deaths based on the estimated number of years a person would have lived if they had not died prematurely.
Although there were around 21 percent fewer deaths in 2021 than in 2020, YLL from COVID-19 rose by 7.4 percent, while YLL per COVID-19 death increased by 36 percent.
In comparison, the majority of the other 15 leading causes of death were stable across the same time periods, and YLL per death from these causes did not change by more than 2.2 percent.
When the pandemic first began in March 2020, the majority of U.S. deaths were among the elderly.
Prior to 2021, age and existing medical conditions were crucial to the development of public health advice, researchers explained. But the development and availability of vaccines, advancement of treatments and shifts in people’s behaviors soon led to a new phase of the pandemic.
Older adults tended to have higher vaccination rates than their younger counterparts, and these vulnerable individuals tended to adhere more strictly to non-pharmaceutical interventions in 2021, researchers wrote.
“There were a lot of changes between the first and second years of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Czeisler said.
“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.”