Average Covid-19 victim dies years before they otherwise would

20 July 2021
What was claimed

The average age of Covid-19 deaths is higher than the average life expectancy, which means that people who get Covid live longer.

Our verdict

This isn’t how life expectancy works. Life expectancy is an average, pulled down by people who die young. As you age, your life expectancy increases. People dying from Covid-19 lose about a decade of life on average.

In an allegedly leaked WhatsApp message, shared with the BBC by the Prime Minister’s former chief political adviser Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson appears to say “get Covid and live longer”, alluding to the average age of Covid-19 deaths. 

Screenshots of the supposed message from Mr Johnson, shared on Twitter and dated 15 October 2020, read: “I must say I have been slightly rocked by some of the data on Covid fatalities. The median age is 82 - 81 for men 85 for women. 

“That is above life expectancy. So get Covid and live longer.” 

While Downing Street has denied other claims made by Mr Cummings, they have so far not denied that the message was sent by Mr Johnson.

The idea that people who die of Covid have lived longer than average fails to appreciate these are the very people who would have been expected to live much longer. As we have written before, people dying of Covid lose about a decade of life, on average.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) does not regularly publish information on the average age of Covid-19 deaths but, as we have written before, a response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request published in January 2021 shows that between the week ending 9 October, 2020, and the week ending 1 January, 2021, the median age of deaths involving Covid-19 was 83. 

Data published through a different FOI request to the ONS shows that the median age of Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales, up to and including 2 October, 2020, was also 83.

According to the most recent statistics from the ONS, the average life expectancy at birth in the UK from 2017 to 2019 was 79.4 years for males and 83.1 years for females. 

This would appear to show that the message attributed to Mr Johnson was correct—but it is not how life expectancy works in reality. 

Life expectancy is an average, which means it is pulled down by people who die young. It also means that life expectancy increases as you age. 

A set of data called the National Life Tables, produced by the ONS, shows how life expectancy adjusts as a person ages. 

An 82-year-old man can expect to live for another 7.4 years on average, while an 85-year-old woman can expect to live another 6.87 years on average. 

People dying of Covid in their 80s before they otherwise would have died, itself reduces average life expectancy. 

The idea that you can ‘get Covid and live longer’ fails to take this into account, and therefore misunderstands the impact of Covid-19 deaths. 

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