A Necessary Adjustment When Comparing 1968 to Now

USpopulation-ByAgeGroup-1968and2019.-featured

An exchange in the comment section of the latest Rhody Reporter leads to an important point.  Rhett Hardwick commented:

While somewhat confused by Lou’s post, this does come to mind. It occurs to me that the famous “Woodstock” occurred during a pandemic (Hong Kong Flu?). I do not recall any reports of an upsurge in illness.

“Lou” responded, in part:

Susan Craddock, a professor at the Institute for Global Studies of the University of Minnesota told the WSJ that mortality rates for the 1968 pandemic were much lower than current mortality rates from COVID-19.

As we all know from following the data of this pandemic so closely, it’s mainly a killer of the elderly.  Kids and young adults are hardly affected, while the rate of complications and deaths increases dramatically as people age past 65.  This raises the question of how the United States of 1968 might have differed from the United States of 2020.

According to the U.S. Census, in 1968, only 9.6% of the population was over 65. In 2019, the percentage was 16.3%.   In 1968, those under 18 made up 35.4% of the population; now they account for just 22.8%.  Of course a pandemic would have higher mortality in an older population.

As the following chart shows, while there is about the same number of bounce-back-from-illness children now as there were in 1968, there are nearly three times as many people in the elderly high-risk category.  If we’re trying to compare the deadliness of pandemics, we have to adjust for this difference.

USpopulation-ByAgeGroup-1968and2019

But we should take the analysis a step further.  In 1968, Americans’ life expectancy at birth was 70.2 years.  (Interestingly, that represented a drop from the prior year, which was explained by the flu epidemic we’re talking about.)  By 2019, that had risen to almost 79 years.

According to the CDC, the 1968 pandemic killed about 100,000 Americans, and “most excess deaths were in people 65 years and older.”  At the moment, around 175,000 Americans have died of COVID-19.  Frankly, that’s not many more people than H3N2 claimed in 1968 if we adjust for total population.  The 100,000 would be 162,000 today simply by the math.  In a general way, we can also assume that we’re managing to catch more people to count in our tally nowadays.

But even without such adjustments, one would expect COVID-19 to be multiples more deadly than 1968’s H3N2 just because three times as many people are in the at-risk category and they make up almost twice the percentage of the population they did, then.  Moreover, our ability to keep people alive, these days, likely means that the elderly population is more vulnerable as a group than fifty years ago.

One can’t escape the observation that we’re constraining the education of our students and depriving young adults of many of the cherished experiences of youth simply because people are alive now who would have died of other causes had they been a couple generations earlier, and because they’re still alive, they have a higher risk of death from a relatively non-deadly virus.



  • Lou

    This paragraph is fundamentally flawed:

    “But even without such adjustments, one would expect COVID-19 to be multiples more deadly than 1968’s H3N2 just because three times as many people are in the at-risk category and they make up almost twice the percentage of the population they did, then. Moreover, our ability to keep people alive, these days, likely means that the elderly population is more vulnerable as a group than fifty years ago.”

    How can anyone come to a conclusion about the expectation of fatalities by comparing two totally unrelated pandemics occurring a half-century apart?

    There’s no support or basis for the statement “the elderly population is more vulnerable as a group than fifty years ago.”

    • ShannonEntropy

      If you keep elderly people alive longer nowadays than you could in the past, then that population will be more susceptible to other causes of death. That’s just science

      I speak from personal experience: I had a surgical condition that was untreatable 50 yrs ago and had a natural history of death within two years of onset of symptoms. I had corrective surgery in 2006 and am still going strong 14 yrs later

      So now I’m part of a population that in 1970 would already be dead, so I’m more likely to die of the Chop Fluey

      I know this concept is too complicated for you to follow, as it prolly is for anyone who’s planning on voting for Joe ‘n Da Hoe

      • Justin Katz

        That’s right, but it’s more than the longevity, though. We can keep people alive with portable devices and drugs that prevent death from some other cause, but that underlying condition still exists and can make a person more vulnerable to disease. More broadly, and separate from definable conditions such as yours, I’d suggest that our increased longevity isn’t so much that we’re keeping the hardy folks alive longer as that we’re extending the lives of people who were, for whatever reason, generally more frail.

        • ShannonEntropy

          I think it’s actually both… we are both keeping frailer people alive longer and even the healthiest people get more susceptible to infections and other ‘insults’ like trauma as they age. If you survive something at a younger age yer just gonna succumb to something else later on. And three-quarters of all Rhodent Covid deaths are among patients in nursing home or other “aggregate care facilities”

          The bottom line is: is keeping oldsters like me alive for a bit longer worth shutting down the entire economy?? Donut forget: we not only contribute nothing to society — I’ve been retired for a decade — but are also a major drain on its resources

          I am part of that vulnerable population, but I still vote *NO!*

          • Lou

            Sorry, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of a couple of deep thinkers here. Living longer makes you more vulnerable to death. Is that the point both of you are trying to make? I guess that makes more sense than arguing about coming to a conclusion about the expectation of fatalities by comparing two totally unrelated pandemics occurring a half-century apart.

          • Rhett Hardwick

            They may be unrelated in your mind, but all pandemics are generally the same. That is why the general term “pandemic” is used.

          • Lou

            Interesting. I wonder why scientists waste their time naming ,tracking and researching each one individually. Maybe they should have checked with you first and you could have told them they all “are generally the same”.

          • Rhett Hardwick

            In all of the research being done, there is something I believe is overlooked. Triage. Focus on questions where your hard work is likely to pay off. Don’t waste time either on easy “clocklike” questions (where simple rules of thumb can get you close to the right answer) or on impenetrable “cloud-like” questions (where even fancy statistical models can’t beat the dart-throwing chimp). Concentrate on questions in the Goldilocks zone of difficulty, where effort pays off the most.