Using a statistical measure called "years of life lost," researchers found that COVID-19 strips more than a decade away from a person's life, on average. For men, the viral infection takes away about 13 years of potential life lived. For women, it's more like 11 years. Both numbers account for underlying long-term conditions.
The concept of "years of life lost," or YLL, is a mathematical equation that estimates the average time a person would have lived if they had not died because of some unforeseen health event, like COVID-19 infection.
The study, which is still awaiting peer review to ensure accuracy and validity, confirms what should seem obvious, but is nevertheless sobering: COVID-19 is not killing people who are already near death, rather it's claiming the lives of many people more than a decade before their time.
"YLL is a common, widely adopted public health statistic to assess the number of years lost due to premature mortality. It's used to assess resource allocation for research and health care delivery," said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor.
According to Dr. David McAllister, senior clinical lecturer and honorary consultant at the University of Glasgow Institute of Health and Wellbeing, he and his colleagues embarked on the study to test the assumption that the impact of COVID-19 may have been overstated, perhaps because the people who are dying would have died soon regardless of their infection.
"This paper is compelling in that it aims to provide a better understanding of the mortality impact of COVID-19," according to Brownstein. "Clearly, there has been a school of thought that individuals that succumbed to COVID-19 are already seriously ill with minimal years of life left to live. This quantitative assessment clears up that misconception showing that years of life lost is over a decade.
"This finding holds even after adjusting for underlying chronic conditions," he added.
Using a report on Italy's death count published on March 26, McAllister and his team compared deaths from COVID-19 to information about mortality from the World Health Organization and Secure Anonymised Record Linkage data, a health care database from the United Kingdom. Their results account for the typical number of chronic conditions normally found for men and women aged 50 years or older who died of COVID-19.
"Among people dying of COVID-19, the number of years of life lost per person appear similar to diseases such as coronary heart disease," McAllister said, according to prepared remarks.
The YLL ranges per person for other diseases in the U.K. are "8.2 for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 11.6 for coronary heart disease, 13.1 for pneumonia, and 21.6 for asthma," according to the study.
"These findings parallel the impact of other well-known conditions, such as coronary heart disease and pneumonia," said Brownstein. "When compared to these benchmarks, these findings do suggest the substantial burden of COVID-19 and should help policy makers as they weigh their public health response decisions."
Metrics like YLL can provide a useful glimpse into the destructive nature of this virus. As governments around the globe consider reopening, research can help inform decision-making and reveal exactly what's at risk.
Priya Amin is a masters degree candidate at Columbia University in narrative medicine and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.