Coronavirus: The average COVID-19 victim had 16 years of life left in them, study finds

The average person who dies from COVID-19 would have lived another 16 years, new research has found.

Researchers looked at data on 1.28 million confirmed deaths linked to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has killed about twice that many in the past year. 

Comparing it to life expectancy data across the 81 countries where the deaths took place, they calculated around 20.5 million years of life had been wiped out - between two and nine times more years than were lost to seasonal influenza in that same time. 

Three-quarters of all years of life lost resulted from deaths of people aged under 75, and men have lost 45 percent more years of life than women, the study found.

The scientists behind the research say it busts the myth that the only considerable health impact of the pandemic has been on the elderly. 

"The most important limitation in COVID-19 attributable death or excess death approaches, however, is that these approaches do not provide information on how many life years have been lost," the study, published in journal Scientific Reports, says.

"Deaths at very old ages can be considered to result in fewer life years lost, when compared to deaths at very young ages. In fact, several policy responses (or non-responses) have been motivated with the argument that COVID-19 is mostly killing individuals who, even in the absence of COVID-19, would have had few life years remaining."

The average age of death in the study was 72.9 years. While life expectancy in most countries at birth is in the high 70s or low 80s, it increases as a person ages - the average person who makes it to their early 70s can expect to live into their mid-80s.

Most years of life lost were due to deaths in the Baby Boomer cohort - aged 55 to 75 - accounting for 45 percent of the total. Despite having many more years ahead of them, people under 55 only accounted for 30 percent of years lost, due to their much lower chance of death from COVID-19. 

Men lost more years not just because they're more likely to die from COVID-19 than women, but because they also tended to die younger - 71.3 years, compared to women's 76. 

"Holding the current age distribution of deaths constant, eliminating the gender differential in years of life lost would require on average a 34 percent reduction in male death counts; this suggests that gender-specific policies might be equally well justified as those based on age," the study says.

The total number of years lost due to deaths from COVID-19 could be underestimated, the researchers said, with excess mortality data - the true number of deaths over and above the norm - showing in many countries, COVID-19 deaths have been underreported. 

"Our results confirm that the mortality impact of COVID-19 is large, not only in terms of numbers of death, but also in terms of years of life lost. While the majority of deaths are occurring at ages above 75, justifying policy responses aimed at protecting these vulnerable ages, our results on the age pattern call for heightened awareness of devising policies protecting also the young."