The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone in some way. The mildest cases involve inconveniences such as being confined at home to avoid spreading the virus. Other cases involve unemployment, lost businesses, and accumulating debt. The worst cases involve coping with the premature deaths of loved ones.
Each death—and its associated life—has unique and powerful elements. Yet, some deaths can be considered more “normal” than others, especially if they’re associated with very old age. The FRED graph above explores CDC data on premature deaths for FRED’s hometown, St. Louis city, as well as neighboring St. Louis County (separate from the city). Solid lines show the crude rates while dashed lines show the age-adjusted rates from 1999 to 2017.
According to the CDC, the premature death rate includes all deaths of those younger than 80 years of age. The crude death rate is simply the number of deaths reported each calendar year per 100,000 people. The age-adjusted death rate is a weighted average of the age-specific death rates, where the weights are associated with a fixed population by age. This is an important adjustment because differences in the composition of the population over time or across counties make comparisons difficult.
First, there’s a dramatic difference between St. Louis’s city and county. This can be expected from the economic asymmetries between the two locations: On average, St. Louis County residents are economically much better off than city residents. In 2017, the rate for the city was 675, which is more than 50% higher than the rate for the county, 446. The age-corrected rates have an even wider (70%) gap, with 594 for the city and 348 for the county.
Compounding factors make a difference: demographic (e.g., age, education), economic (e.g., occupation, nutrition, access to care), social (e.g., exposure to crime, access to care), and environmental (e.g., pollution, access to parks). (A previous FRED Blog post discusses the large variation observed in U.S. premature death rates.) Since these factors move with the economy, a natural hypothesis is that, as the economy grows, its rate of premature deaths should decline.
But premature death rates are on the rise in many locations. During the almost 20 years covered in the graph, both locations have made very little progress. Before the Great Recession of 2007-2009, both locations were either in a stagnant state (a stable rate for the county) or on a favorable trend (a declining rate for the city). After that, both locations entered an adverse trend, almost reversing the gains of the previous years. This result is eliminated once we look at the age-corrected series. Yet, the age-corrected rates still show a troublesome upward trend for premature deaths.
How to create this graph: Search FRED for “premature death” and choose the series for St Louis city. From the “Edit Graph” panel, use the “Add a Line” feature and add the same series for St. Louis County. Likewise, add the series for age-corrected rates. Select the colors and line thicknesses to make the graph easy to read.
Suggested by Alexander Monge-Naranjo.