2020 has seen an increase in U.S. population mortality from a variety of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us know someone who died in 2020, myself included, as I lost my mother earlier this year.
While there still have been general mortality improvement and advancements in health in recent years, the total number of deaths is still quite high. Unfortunately, the United States is about to reach a record 3 million deaths for the year. For reference, the country first reached 2 million deaths in 1983 — and that was a new mark at the time.
As I reflect on the research and available data on mortality, I’m reminded of the important work demographers, researchers and actuaries are doing to help understand what is driving these changes in the mortality improvement rate and the increase of deaths. But it is also important to keep in mind these are not just numbers — they are real people — and finding solutions to understand and study mortality improvement over time is what drives me and my colleagues.
As a research actuary, we analyze data so that mortality improvement can be applied with socioeconomic considerations. That’s a key issue on my mind: Finding ways to help educate and inform in making a difference here.
Life expectancies at birth and older ages correlate with socioeconomic factors. Life expectancy at birth has declined for both men and women in the lowest decile (from 73.5 to 73.1 years for men and from 79.0 to 78.8 years for women), with no progress since 2010. And, unfortunately the gap is widening: The distance between the highest and lowest economic categories is growing. Mortality rates around age 45 to 50 years are 50% higher in the lowest decile, and 50% lower in the highest decile. It is important to take notice of this gap, and consider efforts that can be done to help address it.
(Related: U.S. Death Gap Grows: Demographer)
Data visualizations are helpful for understanding the mortality improvement over time, where you can directly see the specific shifts and changes. The SOA has an interactive dashboard with this type of information, so you can compare by age group, gender and socioeconomic quintile or decile for either mortality rate, mortality improvement rate, survival probabilities or expected lifetimes.
Mortality improvement for men and women ages 50 to 59, 60 to 69, and 70 to 69, across all socioeconomic categories, has seen good mortality improvement. However it is not equal across all socioeconomic categories. Those charts on the national average show where mortality improvement is at the lowest and highest. It is important to ask how we can make mortality improvement more equally distributed across all parts of the population.
For example, we have seen noticeable improvement in mortality for cancer cases, but the improvement still isn’t equal across all income categories. However, there are other illnesses, such as kidney disease and diabetes that don’t have the same mortality improvement results across higher and lower socioeconomic categories. These are societal topics that need more research and support in helping increase mortality improvement.
Some causes of death are more prominent in certain populations that don’t have access to the same insurance offerings. For financial advisors, this is an important concept to think about, in connection with the need for financial security and financial services for investing in the future. It is important to have insurance and financial services planning for all people in preparing for retirement. I see this as an opportunity to help educate individuals to understand how to achieve lifetime income in retirement. While it is a challenge, financial and retirement security concepts are not just for wealthy individuals to consider. They apply to everyone in the United States.
I encourage you to search out available research and resources. Continue to check mortality improvement trends, and feel free to reach out to discuss. It is by having a dialogue that we can discuss new approaches, new ideas, and different ways to support mortality improvement for all.
R. Dale Hall, FSA, CERA, CFA, MAAA, is managing director of research at the Society of Actuaries in Schaumburg, Illinois.