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COVID-19 was third leading cause of death in the United States in both 2020 and 2021

7/19/2022, NCI Press Release

What

During the 20-month period studied, COVID-19 accounted for 1 in 8 deaths (or 350,000 deaths) in the United States. Heart disease was the number one cause of death, followed by cancer, with these two causes of death accounting for a total of 1.29 million deaths. Accidents and stroke were the fourth and fifth leading causes of death. In every age group 15 years and older, COVID-19 was one of the top five causes of death during this period.

When the authors analyzed deaths in 2020 (March–December) and in 2021 (January–October) separately, they found that in 2020, COVID-19 was the fourth and fifth leading cause of death among people ages 45–54 and 35–44, respectively. But in 2021, COVID-19 became the first and second leading cause of death in these age groups. Among those 85 and older, COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death in 2020, but dropped to third in 2021, likely because of targeted vaccination efforts in this age group.

The pandemic has also had an indirect effect on other causes of death in the United States. Past data have shown that deaths from other causes, including heart disease, accidents, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes increased from 2019 to 2020, possibly because people were reluctant to seek medical care for fear of catching COVID-19. Additional impacts of the pandemic on other causes of death may emerge in the years to come, the researchers said. For example, the pandemic prevented many people from getting regular cancer screening, which may result in future increases in cancer deaths.

Who

Meredith S. Shiels, Ph.D., Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute

The Study

“Leading Causes of Death in the United States during the COVID-19 Pandemic, March 2020 to October 2021” appeared July 5 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

About the National Cancer Institute (NCI): NCI leads the National Cancer Program and NIH’s efforts to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of people with cancer. NCI supports a wide range of cancer research and training extramurally through grants and contracts. NCI’s intramural research program conducts innovative, transdisciplinary basic, translational, clinical, and epidemiological research on the causes of cancer, avenues for prevention, risk prediction, early detection, and treatment, including research at the NIH Clinical Center—the world’s largest research hospital. Learn more about NCI’s intramural research from the Center for Cancer Research and the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics. For more information about cancer, please visit the NCI website at cancer.gov or call NCI’s contact center at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit nih.gov.

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Advancing Cancer Care through Partnerships and Innovation

Georgia CORE is a statewide nonprofit that leverages partnerships and innovation to attract more clinical trials, increase research, and promote education and early detection to improve cancer care for Georgians in rural, urban, and suburban communities across the state.