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US Life Expectancy Hasn’t Budged Even A Day From Coronavirus

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Much shouting over in the US about how covid has reduced US life expectancy. Complete and utter nonsense of course. What has been reduced – and ain’t this a shock for a pandemic – is current lifespans. That doesn’t change expected lifespans in the slightest.

The problem is that people are forgetting what is being measured:

Life expectancy in the United States dropped a staggering one year during the first half of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic caused its first wave of deaths, health officials are reporting.

Minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing nearly three years and Hispanics, nearly two years, according to preliminary estimates Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No, that’s just not right.

Life expectancy is how long a baby born today can expect to live, on average.

The problem is that that’s what we all think it is but that isn’t in fact what is measured.

Instead, we measure the age at death of the current generation of people dying. Well, obviously, because we don;t know the age at which people just born are going to die.

The age at death of people now is a proxy for the age at which young people will die. But like all proxies we’ve got to grasp that it is indeed a proxy.

So, do we think that 80 year olds dying now of Covid affects the likely lifespan of a baby born this year? No, actually, we don’t. Therefore while the current average age of death has declined we do not think that expected lifespan has changed in the slightest.

This is also rather more than just a Parp! at journalists. Failing to understand what is a proxy measurement and what a direct observation is the cause of many an error. It’s something to guard against therefore.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. “Therefore while the current average age of death has declined…” But has the current age of death declined?

    Using Alberta, Canada as an example, the Alberta Health Services website shows the average age of death with covid to be 82.
    According to Wki (using data from StatsCan) in 2016 the average age of death in Alberta was Median 81.25, mode 79.8 years.

  2. Addolff – probably so. If we look only at the group who died from Kung Flu and their average age was 82, the question is, what would it have been in the absence of Kung Flu? If they would have lived to 84 (on average) the KF definitely reduced lifespans.

  3. I wouldn’t be astonished to learn that Covid has caused the mean age at death to increase slightly, since it preferentially takes the very old. The age at death statistics are currently almost identical (to within a month or two) between deaths from all causes in 2019 an deaths mentioning Covid on the certificate.

  4. It very well could do that in the short run while decreasing it in the long run. Thanks to Lockdowns fewer people are driving, working, etc. so a lot of deaths among the young and healthy are avoided – offset at least somewhat by more suicides, drug ODs, etc. In the long run, however, the Lockdowns may (probably will IMHO) lead to a lot of premature deaths from untreated medical conditions, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, etc.

  5. It’s a bit more complicated than that, Tim, because the average age at death will be affected by the relative numbers born in each decade of the past. If you look at the demographic data for the UK there are more people in the 70-74 age group than in the 65-69 age group even though a higher number and %age of the former have already died. [The “baby boom” ended in 1949, not 1964]
    The number given as “life expectancy” is calculated by applying the age-specific death rates for the current year (or the most recently calculated ones) for ages 0 to 100+ to find the proportions expected to survive to each given age and summing Nn times Dn to get a number.
    Actual life expectancy is unknown because it depends upon future trends in improving medical treatment and worsening obesity etc. US life expectancy may well be changed by covid-19 if it becomes a lower-level endemic disease that will kill a few people every year. UK life expectancy (or at least the reported figures) is currently unaffected because the CMI Bureau has announced that it will ignore 2020 data in its calculations [I expect them to follow up by saying that they will ignore 2021 data as well as that will be similarly, albeit less, distorted]

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