(AP) — The United States
saw significant increases in death rates for heart disease
, and other common killers in 2020, and experts believe a major reason may be that many people
with dangerous symptoms avoided the hospital for fear of contracting the coronavirus
The death rates, which were published online this week by federal health officials, add to the growing body
of evidence that the number of lives lost directly or indirectly to the coronavirus in the United States is far greater than the official COVID-19 death toll
of nearly 600,000 in 2020-21.
Researchers have known for months that 2020 would be the deadliest year in U.S. history, owing primarily to COVID-19, but data released this week revealed the highest increases in heart disease and diabetes death rates in at least 20 years.
“I would probably use the word alarming,” said Dr. Tannaz Moin, a UCLA diabetes expert.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
reported earlier this year that nearly 3.4 million Americans died in 2020, an all-time high, with more than 345,000 of those deaths directly attributed to COVID-19. The CDC
also provided death statistics for some of the leading causes of death, including the nation's top two killers, heart disease and cancer
However, the data released this week includes death rates — that is, fatalities as a percentage of the population — which is thought to be a better way to see the impact year to year because the population fluctuates.
The CDC had full-year provisional data for nine causes of death, including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, chronic liver disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, and nine of them increased.
Some of the increases were minor, but others were dramatic. The long-term heart disease death rate increased to 167 deaths per 100,000 population, up from 161.5 the previous year, marking only the second time in 20 years that the rate had risen. This increase of more than 3% outpaced the less than 1% increase seen in 2015.
In total, approximately 32,000 more people died from heart disease than the previous year.
Diabetes deaths increased to 24.6 per 100,000 in 2018, up from 21.6 in 2019. This equated to 13,000 more diabetes deaths than in 2019. The 14% increase was the largest in decades.
Alzheimer's disease death rates increased by 8%, Parkinson's by 11%, hypertension by 12%, and stroke by 4%.
The CDC provided only statistics, not explanations, and did not specify how many of the fatalities were caused by people who had been infected with — and weakened by — the coronavirus but died as a result of heart disease, diabetes, or other conditions.
According to some experts, a larger reason is that many patients did not seek emergency treatment because they were afraid of becoming infected with the virus.
“When COVID hospitalization rates increased, we saw dramatic decreases in patients presenting to the emergency room with heart attacks, strokes, or heart failure,” said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, a Northwestern University researcher and the American Heart Association’s president-elect.
Other possible explanations hint at the coronavirus indirectly.
Many patients stopped taking care of themselves during the crisis, gaining weight or cutting back on taking high blood pressure medications, he said, adding that the stress of the crisis, the lockdown-related disappearance of exercise options, and the loss of jobs
and the associated health insurance
were all factors.
Increases in Kentucky
, and West Virginia
pushed the four into the group of states with the highest rates of heart disease death, according to CDC data, while similar changes occurred in Indiana, New Mexico
, West Virginia, and some other Southern and Plains states for diabetes.
Cancer death rates continued to fall during COVID-19, falling about 2% in 2020, similar to the drop seen from 2018 to 2019, despite a drop in cancer screenings and cancer care that was often postponed last year.
Lloyd-Jones' theory for the decline: Many of the virus's victims had cancer, but COVID intervened and became the primary cause of death.
Previously, demographer Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire
discovered that an unprecedented 25 states saw more deaths than births last year.
, Delaware, Florida
, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine
, Michigan, Mississippi
, Missouri, Montana
, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio
, Rhode Island
, South Carolina
, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin
were among the states involved.
Births have traditionally outnumbered deaths in the vast majority of states.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education
provides funding to the Associated Press
Health and Science Department, but the AP is solely responsible for all content.
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