What’s Killing Men Ages 18-39?

The all-cause mortality rate in 2021 for men in the US ages 18-39 was about 40% higher than the average of 2018 and 2019. That’s a huge increase, especially for a group that is not in the high-risk category for COVID-19. What’s causing it?

Some have suggested that heart disease deaths, perhaps induced by the COVID vaccines, is the cause. This is not just a fringe internet theory by anonymous Twitter accounts. The Surgeon General of Florida has said this is true.

What do the data say? The first thing we can look at is heart disease deaths for men ages 18-39.

The data I’m using is from the CDC WONDER database. This database aggregates data from US states, using a standardized system of reporting deaths. The most important thing to know is that in this database, each death can one have one underlying cause, and this is indicated on the death certificate. Deaths can also have multiple contributing causes (and most deaths do), and the database allows you to search for those too. But for this analysis, I’m only looking at the underlying cause.

Here’s the heart disease death data for men ages 18-39, presented two different ways. First the trailing 12-month average. Don’t focus too much on that dip at the end, since the most recent data is incomplete. Instead, notice three things. First, there was a clear increase in heart disease deaths. Second, that rise began in mid-2020, well before the introduction of vaccines. Third, once vaccines started being administered to this age group in Spring 2021, the number of deaths leveled off (though it didn’t return to pre-pandemic levels).

Here’s another way of looking at the data: 12-month time periods, rather than a trailing average. I created 12-month time periods starting in March and ending in February of the following year. I’ve also truncated the y-axis to show more detail, not to trick you. But don’t be tricked! The deaths are up 2-3%, not a more than doubling as the chart appears to show.

We can see in the chart above that the rise in heart disease deaths for young males completely preceded the vaccination period. Something changed, for sure, but the change wasn’t the introduction of vaccines. Heart disease deaths (by underlying cause) are only up 2-3%, while overall deaths are up around 40%.

So, to repeat the title question, what is killing these young men?

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COVID Deaths, Excess Deaths, and the Non-Elderly (Revisited)

While we know that COVID primarily affects the elderly, the mortality and other effects on the non-elderly aren’t trivial. I have explored this in several past posts, such as this November 2021 post on Americans in their 30s and 40s. But now we have more complete (though not fully complete) mortality data for 2021, so it’s worth revisiting the question of COVID and the non-elderly again.

For this post, I will primarily focus on the 12-month period from November 2020 through October 2021. While data is available past October 2021 on mortality for most causes, data classified by “intent” (suicides, homicides, traffic accidents, and importantly drug overdoses) is only fully current in the CDC WONDER data through October 2021. This timeframe also conveniently encompasses both the Winter 2020/21 wave and the Delta wave of COVID (though not yet the Omicron wave, which was quite deadly).

First, let’s look at excess mortality using standard age groups. For this calculation, I use the period November 2018 through October 2019 as the baseline. The chart shows the increase in all-cause deaths in percentage terms. It is also adjusted for population growth, though for most age groups this was +/- 1% (the 65+ group was 3% larger than 2 years prior).

A few things jump out here. First notice the massive increase in mortality for the 35-44 age group (much more on this later). Almost 50% more deaths! To put that in raw numbers, deaths increased from about 82,000 to 122,000 for the 35-44 age group, and population growth was only about 1%. And while that is the largest increase, there were huge increases for every age group that includes adults.

Also notice that the 65+ age group certainly saw an increase, but it is the smallest increase among adults! Of course, in raw numbers the 65+ age group had the most excess deaths: about 450,000 of the 680,000 excess deaths during this time period. But since the elderly die at such high rates in every year, the increase was as large in percentage terms.

One related fact that doesn’t show up in the chart: while there were about 680,000 excess deaths during this time frame in the US in total, there were only about 480,000 deaths where COVID-19 was listed as the underlying cause of death. That means we have about 200,000 additional deaths in this 12-month time period to account for, or a 24% increase (population growth overall was only 0.4%).

That’s a lot of other, non-COVID deaths! What were those deaths? Let’s dig into the data.

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