NEW YORK – The United States saw a remarkable rise in death rates in 2020 for heart disease, diabetes, and several other common causes of death from fear of contracting the coronavirus.
The death rates published online this week by the federal health authorities add to the growing evidence that the number of lives lost, directly or indirectly, to the coronavirus in the United States is far higher than the officially reported COVID-19 death toll of nearly 600,000 in 2020-21.
For months, researchers have known that 2020 was the deadliest year in US history, largely due to COVID-19. But the data released this week showed the largest increase in death rates for heart disease and diabetes in at least 20 years.
“I would probably use the word ‘alarming’,” said Dr. Tannaz Moin, diabetes expert at UCLA, on the trends.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly 3.4 million Americans died in 2020, an all-time record. Of these deaths, more than 345,000 have been directly attributed to COVID-19. The CDC also provided the death toll for some of the leading causes of death, including the two leading causes of death in the country, heart disease and cancer.
But the data released this week includes death rates – that is, deaths relative to population – which are seen as a better way to see the impact from year to year as the population fluctuates.
Of the causes of death for which the CDC had preliminary data for the full year, nine saw an increase. These included Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, chronic liver disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.
Some of the gains were relatively small, but others were dramatic. The long-term decline in the death rate from heart disease rose from 161.5 in the previous year to 167 deaths per 100,000 population. The price rose for the second time in 20 years. That more than 3% increase outpaced the less than 1% increase in 2015.
In raw numbers, there were about 32,000 more deaths from heart disease than the year before.
The death toll from diabetes rose to 24.6 per 100,000 last year, up from 21.6 in 2019. That meant 13,000 more deaths from diabetes than in 2019. The 14% increase was the largest increase in the diabetes death rate for decades.
The death rate from Alzheimer’s disease increased by 8%, Parkinson’s disease by 11%, high blood pressure by 12%, and stroke by 4%.
The CDC only provided the statistics, not the explanations. The agency also did not say how many of the deaths were people infected and weakened by the coronavirus, but whose death was mainly due to heart disease, diabetes or other medical conditions.
Some experts see a bigger reason why many patients did not seek treatment in an emergency because they feared contracting the virus.
“If hospitalization rates for COVID increased, we would see a dramatic decrease in patients presenting to the emergency room with heart attacks, strokes, or heart failure,” said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, a Northwestern University researcher and president-elect of the American Heart Association.
Other possible explanations also indirectly indicate the coronavirus.
Many patients stopped taking care of themselves, gained weight, or stopped taking high blood pressure medication during the crisis, he said. The stress of the crisis, the lockdown-related loss of exercise offers as well as the loss of jobs and the associated health insurance are factors, said experts.
The surge in Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, and West Virginia put the four in the group of states with the highest death rates from heart disease, the CDC data showed. In diabetes, similar changes have occurred in Indiana, New Mexico, West Virginia, and several other southern and plains states.
The death rate of the nation’s biggest killer, cancer, continued to decline in the year of COVID-19. It declined by about 2% in 2020, similar to the decline from 2018 to 2019, although cancer screenings and cancer treatments have decreased or been postponed many times over the past year.
Lloyd-Jones’ theory of decline: Many of the virus’s victims battled cancer, “but COVID intervened and became the leading cause of death”.
Previous research by the University of New Hampshire demographer Kenneth Johnson found that there were more total deaths than births in an unprecedented 25 states over the past year.
The states were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee , Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Traditionally, the vast majority of states have more births than deaths.