Reviews | Lockdowns have protected the elderly. But at what cost to the health of young adults?

The Covid-19 killed mainly elderly people. But since the start of the pandemic, the death rate from all causes among young adults has increased by a higher percentage than the death rate from all causes among the elderly.

When I heard this statistic, I thought it must be a mistake. If Covid is ravaging the elderly population, how could it be young adults whose death rates have increased the most?

To see for myself, I downloaded US age-specific death totals from the National Center for Health Statistics. Here is a chart based on those numbers:

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

One reaction to these numbers is to say they distract from the terrible toll of Covid on the elderly. But another reaction is that the increase in deaths among young adults is shocking in itself and needs to be examined more closely. The table shows that the number of people aged 25 to 44 who died of all causes in the United States in 2021 was 52% higher than the number of people who died in an average year from 2015 to 2019. This is a enormous increase that would be all above the headlines if not for the arguably greater tragedy of Covid deaths among the elderly.

A study released this month as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper calls the high death toll among young Americans “a historic, but largely unrecognized, health emergency.” He asks whether young adults have suffered ‘collateral damage’ from policies such as lockdowns which were intended to protect the elderly.

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

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

Causes of death were different among adults aged 45 to 64, they found: “Their non-Covid mortality was also high, but with almost all causes high associated with chronic diseases such as circulatory diseases, diabetes , obesity or liver disease rather than homicide or traffic accident.

They write: “All of this suggests that large and sustained lifestyle changes designed to avoid a single virus not only have ‘economic’ opportunity costs, but have also taken the lives of staggeringly large numbers of young people. “

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 one agrees or not, it’s important to have the facts.

Along the same lines, a reader of this newsletter, a retiree from New York who asked not to be identified, asked me to consider whether the Covid death toll would improve Social Security finances by (sorry for the brutality) killing some beneficiaries. The answer is unclear in the Social Security Trust Fund Trustees’ Annual Report for 2022, which was released on June 2.

So I interviewed Stephen Goss, the chief actuary for Social Security. He said the long-term impact of Covid on trust funds is expected to be minor. One reason, he said, is that many of the older people who have died of Covid over the past two years had other health conditions and would have died relatively early of something else. Another reason is that after a beneficiary dies, the spouse gets an increased survivor benefit in many cases, which offsets some of the savings for trust funds.

Goss said there are two competing factors for the longer-term impact of Covid on beneficiary death rates. The first is that they will be lower 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 shortly after contracting Covid, as many have been damaged by it to some degree and will die prematurely. These factors are likely to be largely offset with little net effect on longer-term mortality rates. “It will take us years to determine if this is an appropriate assumption,” he said.


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

Guillaume Lazonick

Cambridge, Mass.

The author is President of the University-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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