Lost Years: From Lost Lives to Life Lost

2 Apr

The mortality rate is puzzling to mortals. A better number is the expected number of years lost. (A yet better number would be quality-adjusted years lost.) To make it easier to calculate the expected years lost, Suriyan and I developed a Python package that uses the SSA actuarial data and life table to estimate the expected years lost.

We illustrate the use of the package by estimating the average number of years by which people’s lives are shortened due to coronavirus (see Note 1 at the end of the article). Using data from Table 1 of the paper that gives us the distribution of ages of people who died from COVID-19 in China, with conservative assumptions (assuming the gender of the dead person to be male, taking the middle of age ranges) we find that people’s lives are shortened by about 11 years on average. These estimates are conservative for one additional reason: there is likely an inverse correlation between people who die and their expected longevity. And note that given a bulk of the deaths are among older people, when people are more infirm, the quality-adjusted years lost is likely yet more modest. Given that the last life tables from China are from 1981 and given life expectancy in China has risen substantially since then (though most gains come from reductions in childhood mortality, etc.), we exploit the recent data from the US, assuming as-if people have the same life tables as Americans. Using the most recent SSA data, we find that the number to be 16. Compare this to deaths from road accidents, the modal reason for death among 5-24, and 25-44 ages in the US. Assuming everyone who dies from a traffic accident is a man, and assuming the age of death to be 25, we get ~52 years, roughly 3x as large as that of coronavirus (see Note 3 at the end of the article). On the other hand, smoking on average shortens life by about seven years. (See Note 2 at the end of the article.)

8/4 Addendum: Using COVID-19 Electronic Death Certification Data (CEPIDC), like above, we estimate the average number of years lost by people dying of coronavirus. With conservative assumptions (assuming the gender of the dead person to be male, taking the middle of age ranges) we find that people’s lives are shortened by about 9 years on average. Surprisingly, the average number of years lost of the people dying of coronavirus remained steady at about 9 years between March and July 2020.

Note 1: Years lost is not sufficient to understand the impact of Covid-19. Covid-19 has had dramatic consequences on the quality of life and has had a large financial impact, among other things. It is useful to account for those when estimating the net impact of Covid-19.

Note 2: In the calculations above, we assume that all the deaths from Coronavirus have been observed. One could do the calculation differently by tracking life spans of people infected with Covid-19 and comparing it to a similar set of people who were never infected with Covid-19. Presumably, the average years lost for people who don’t die of Covid-19 when they are first infected is a lot lower. Thus, counting them would bring the average years lost way down.

Note 3: The net impact of Covid-19 on years lost in the short-term should plausibly account for years saved because of fewer traffic accidents, etc.