Newly released data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that rates of death from both diabetes and heart disease went up substantially in 2020, raising the question of how the COVID-19 pandemic might explain this increase — and particularly, whether it could be blamed on people delaying or avoiding needed medical care.
As noted in an article on the new findings at Becker’s Hospital Review, the rate of death from diabetes was 21.6 per 100,000 people in 2019, which rose to 24.6 in 2020 — an increase of 13.9%. The rate of death from heart disease was 161.5 per 100,000 people in 2019, which rose to 167.0 in 2020 — an increase of 3.4%. A few other causes of death also saw increases, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic liver disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, according to another article on the latest findings from NBC News.
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To put the increases in death from heart disease and diabetes in perspective, the death rate from heart disease has been falling over time, and the latest increase is only the second time in 20 years that it has gone up from one to the next. The last time that happened, in 2015, the increase was less than 1%. While the death rate from diabetes has not been falling consistently over time, the latest increase represents the biggest spike seen in decades — and roughly 13,000 more deaths from diabetes than in the previous year.
While the CDC records separate death rates for heart disease and high blood pressure, the effects of high blood pressure can translate into more deaths in people with both diabetes and heart disease — so it’s notable that the death rate for high blood pressure also increased by about 12%. The rate of death from stroke — for which high blood pressure is a major risk factor — went up by about 4%.
As noted in the Becker’s Hospital Review article, the CDC didn’t speculate about the reasons for the latest increases in the rate of death from various causes that it reported. But previous studies give some clues about what could be responsible for these historic increases. For example, an article published in November 2020 in the journal JAMA Cardiology found that in March and April of 2020, the survival rate for cardiac arrest outside a hospital setting dropped by about 17% compared with the equivalent time period in 2019. But it’s unclear whether this increase was caused mostly by people delaying care, or whether it could also be due to behaviors or stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — or even possibly due in some part to undiagnosed COVID-19 itself.
In contrast to the increases seen for heart disease and diabetes, the death rate for cancer dropped by about 2% between 2019 and 2020. But as one expert in the NBC News article notes, this recorded decrease may simply reflect the fact that another disease — COVID-19 — killed many people with cancer before their cancer did. Since cancer screenings and care were often delayed during the pandemic, it’s unlikely that improvements in cancer treatment or early detection could have led to the decrease in death.
More studies are needed — and will most likely be forthcoming — to understand what combination of factors led to the enormous spike in deaths from diabetes in 2020.
Want to learn more about protecting your heart? Read “Be Heart Smart: Know Your Numbers,” “Does Diabetes Hurt Your Heart?” “Fight Off Heart Disease With These Five Heart-Healthy Foods” and “Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease.”
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