The missing Americans: early death in the United States 1933-2021

Jacob Bor, Andrew C. Stokes, and Julia Raifman are faculty at Boston University School of Public Health. Atheendar Venkataramani is faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. Mary T. Bassett directs the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard School of Public Health and is the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Health. David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler are Distinguished Professors at Hunter College, City University of New York, and faculty at Cambridge Health Alliance/Harvard Medical School. The paper does not necessarily reflect the views of the NYS Department of Health or any of the authors’ institutions. 

COVID-19 led to a large increase in U.S. deaths. However, even before the pandemic, the U.S. had higher death rates than other wealthy nations. How many deaths could be avoided if the U.S. had the same mortality rates as its peers?

In a new study, we quantify the annual number of U.S. deaths that would have been averted over nearly a century if the U.S. had age-specific mortality rates equal to the average of 18 similarly wealthy nations. We refer to these excess U.S. deaths as “missing Americans.”

The annual number of “missing Americans” increased steadily beginning in the late 1970s, reaching 626,353 in 2019 (Figure). Excess U.S. deaths jumped sharply to 991,868 in 2020 and 1,092,293 in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure. Excess deaths in the U.S. relative to other wealthy nations, 1933-2021. Source: Human Mortality Database. Note: Figure shows the difference between the number of deaths that occurred in the U.S. each year and the number of deaths that would have occurred if the U.S. had age-specific mortality rates equal to the average of other wealthy nations. The comparison set includes Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The average of other wealthy nations excludes Portugal prior to 1940, Austria and Japan prior to 1947, Germany prior to 1956, and Luxembourg prior to 1960. From 1960, all countries are represented (solid dots).

In 2021, nearly 1 out of every 3 U.S. deaths would have been averted if U.S. mortality rates had equaled those of its peer nations. Half of these excess deaths were among U.S. residents under 65 years. We estimate that the 1.1M excess deaths in 2021 were associated with 25M years of life lost, accounting for the number of years the deceased would otherwise be expected to live.

We also compared mortality rates of U.S. racial and ethnic groups with the international benchmark. Black and Native Americans accounted for a disproportionate share of the “missing Americans.” However, the majority of “missing Americans” were White non-Hispanic persons.

Our findings are consistent with recent reports that the life expectancy gap between the U.S. and peer nations widened during the pandemic, with U.S. life expectancy falling from 78.9 to 76.6 years. Life expectancy is widely reported, but it is a complex measure and may be misinterpreted as reflecting small differences in mortality at advanced ages.

In fact, the greatest relative differences in mortality between the U.S. and peer countries occur before age 65. In 2021, half of all deaths to U.S. residents under 65 years – and 90% of the increase in under-65 mortality since 2019 – would have been avoided if the U.S. had the mortality rates of other wealthy nations. In addition to the loss of life, these early deaths often leave behind child (and elder) dependents without key social and economic support.

Our calculations were based on recently released mortality data, obtained from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER Database and the Human Mortality Database. The international comparison group included all available countries with relatively complete mortality data starting in 1960 or earlier, after excluding former communist countries. Our paper builds on prior analyses of excess deaths by our study team and by others.

We find a very large increase in excess U.S. deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this spike occurred on top of a growing trend that reached 600,000 excess deaths in 2019. Future COVID-19 deaths could be reduced with broader vaccine uptake, worker protections, and masking during surges. Even if COVID-19 mortality were eliminated, however, the U.S. would likely suffer hundreds of thousands of excess deaths each year, with many linked to firearms, opioids, and obesity.

Addressing excess deaths in the U.S. will require public health and social policies that target the root causes of U.S. health malaise, including fading economic opportunities and rising financial insecurity, structural racism, and failures of institutions at all levels of government to invest adequately in population health.

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