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Life Health > Annuities > Fixed Annuities

COVID-19 Could Cut Future U.S. Death Rate: Researchers

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What You Need to Know

  • A pandemic could kill a higher percentage of sick people than of healthy people.
  • That might leave the surviving population with a lower death rate.
  • In 2020, however, the pandemic-related selection effect on people ages 80 and older was probably small.

The COVID-19 pandemic could cut the death rate for the older Americans now collecting pension benefits, individual annuity benefits and Social Security — but it probably won’t have enough of an effect to hurt Social Security’s trust fund.

Gal Wettstein and other researchers affiliated with the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College have published that assessment in a new paper on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. survivors’ mortality level. The list of authors includes Alicia Munnell, the director of the Center for Retirement Research.

Some economists have argued that the pandemic might have sharply increased the average life expectancy for the U.S. retirees who are alive now, by killing a high percentage of the older Americans who had diabetes, cancer, kidney disease and other serious health problems, and leaving the country with a healthier retiree population.

The pandemic came to light in the United States in January 2020. Wettstein and his colleagues used U.S. federal government health status survey data, and death data for 2020, to look for pandemic-related “selection effects.”

“This analysis shows that while, directionally, the selection effect is likely to reduce mortality in the near future, the magnitude of the impact of selection on near-term mortality rates is modest,” the researchers write. “Mortality is anticipated to decline by around 1 percentage point among those ages 90-99, and less at younger ages.”

For people in their 90s, a 1-percentage-point drop in mortality would reduce 10-year mortality to about 90% for women and 94% for men.

What It Means

The COVID-19 pandemic will complicate efforts to help clients use annuities and other arrangements to manage longevity risk.

The pandemic could still kill them early.

But, just the fact that your clients are still alive increases the odds that they could stay alive longer than expected.

Research Details

The researchers began their analysis because they wanted to know if pandemic-related “survivor selection” could hurt a big retirement savings arrangement: the Social Security trust fund.

“Forecasting mortality rates in the near- and long-term is essential to understanding the sufficiency of funding streams for the program,” Wettstein and his colleagues write. “The acceleration of deaths of otherwise high-mortality individuals due to the pandemic may require new life tables to be estimated.”

The researchers say they designed their analysis to come up with the biggest reasonable estimate of how much the pandemic could cut future retiree mortality.

To make the estimate especially conservative, the researchers assumed that COVID-19 had stopped killing people after 2020, and that “long COVID” will have no effect on mortality.

The researchers found that, in 2020, for people ages 60 through 79, excess mortality for sick people was much higher than for healthy people.

But, for people ages 80 through 99, excess mortality was about the same for sick people and healthy people.

The fact that COVID-19 was about as hard on healthy people over 80 as sick people over 80 means that any improvement in the average level of retiree health on retiree mortality will probably be small, the researchers write.

(Photo: Adobe Stock)


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