The Coronavirus Has Claimed 2.5 Million Years of Potential Life in the U.S., Study Finds

A Harvard researcher added up the number of years that Americans who died from Covid-19 might have lived had they reached a typical life expectancy.


By Katherine J. Wu

In less than a year, the coronavirus has killed more than 220,000 Americans. But even that staggering number downplays the true toll of the pandemic, according to a recent analysis.

Every death represents years of potential life lost, years that might otherwise have been filled with rich memories of family, friends, productivity and joy — trips to the grocery store, late night conversations on the phone, tearful firsts with a newborn baby.

“Think of everything that a person does in a year,” said Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard. “Who among us would not give anything to have one more year with a parent, a spouse, a son or daughter, a close friend?”

In the new analysis, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, Dr. Elledge added up those years. He tabulated the ages of Americans known to have died of Covid-19, and tallied the number of years they might have lived had they reached a typical life expectancy.

His calculations show that the coronavirus has claimed more than 2.5 million years of potential life in the United States since the start of 2020. Nearly half of those years were taken from people under the age of 65.

The numbers, Dr. Elledge said, magnify a dimension of the pandemic’s toll that can’t be captured by absolute deaths alone, and underscore the importance of taming the virus to protect everyone, regardless of age.

“These are everyday people who are dying,” said Dr. Utibe Essien, a physician and health equity researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who was not involved in the analysis. “They’re losing time with their kids, their grandkids, their opportunities to build their futures.” Dr. Essien was one of several experts who reviewed the study at the request of The New York Times.

About 80 percent of the Americans who have died from the coronavirus were over 65. But younger people are still vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus, which, when they prove lethal, can cleave several decades from a life span.

Lost Years

A new paper estimates that over 2.5 million years of potential life have been lost to Covid-19 in the United States.

400,000

potential years

of life lost

Men

Women

300,000

200,000

100,000

Age 4

or less

5–14

15–24

25–34

35–44

45–54

55–74

65–74

75–84

Age 85+

Men

Women

300,000

potential years

of life lost

200,000

100,000

Age

5

15

25

35

45

55

65

75

85

By The New York Times | Source: Stephen J. Elledge, medRxiv

Such statistics have only grown in importance as case numbers and deaths among younger people continue to rise. The pandemic has driven a 26.5 percent jump in excess deaths in people ages 25 to 44 — an increase higher than that of any other age group, according to data released on Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report comes just days after scientists published a high-profile and discredited declaration arguing that businesses and schools should be quickly opened and that people “who are not vulnerable” to the virus — presumably the young and healthy — should return to “life as normal” while older Americans remain cloistered from the coronavirus.

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