As new mortality data come in, it’s increasingly clear that something abnormal happened in the spring of 2021 when it comes to people dying of causes other than flu, Covid and other respiratory diseases.
I have updated the non-respiratory data to the end of 2023, so there are now four years of Covid-era data included in it. The progression can however be traced back all the way to 2010, as shown below (the red line is the running 52-week average), and the sharp rise from early 2021 is now clear as day. Whatever is behind this has caused a rising trend in non-respiratory mortality (NRM) that has now stabilised, but at a much higher level than before the whole Covid imbroglio began. In fact, 2023 showed the worst total non-respiratory mortality figures than in any of the three preceding years, at 9.5% above the pre-Covid 2015-2019 average. In recognition of this sorry reality, the ONS this week said that life expectancy has gone backwards by 12 years to 2010 levels.
Take a look at the chart below, which shows the NRM pattern during the period 2015-2019 as well as the corollary for respiratory disease mortality (RD). Averages for each week are shown. The deaths from respiratory illness are by definition from acute disease, at least those that were properly registered as ‘died from’ rather than ‘died with’. The two lines match very closely in shape at least, the only real difference being the total numbers involved in each case (note the different range for respiratory disease on the secondary Y axis on the right hand side).
To emphasise this similarity further we can compare the ratio of non-respiratory mortality to respiratory disease mortality for each year from 2010 to 2019. They run like this:
Average for the whole period is 6.18.
The maximum variation in each year from the average proportion of NRM deaths to total deaths (average of 86.1%) is only 0.75% (up or down). This all goes to show that there is a strong consistency to the overall yearly figures, despite the large variation in weekly death numbers for both non-respiratory mortality and respiratory mortality over the course of each year.
NRM is clearly highly seasonal, so even though the bulk of these deaths arise from chronic morbidity, whatever it is that tips an individual over the edge to his or her demise varies over the course of the year.
My working assumption is that whatever factors drive normal seasonal variation in acute respiratory disease mortality are also responsible for a similar variation in the proportion of people dying from chronic disease during any given week of the year. The importance of studying seasonal variation as the main driver of disease variability was emphasised in a recent paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Clinical Medicine, which strikingly found no noticeable effect on Covid incidence patterns from vaccines and non-pharmaceutical interventions but a clear link with the seasonality of coronaviruses.
The most likely common factor to search for is whatever causes a variation in the vulnerability of people to any form of external shock, e.g. a reduction in their immune defences. In the normal course of events this may for example be something climate related (e.g. cold weather) or perhaps depends on some other natural variables like sunlight intensity.
Could a man-made event that may have had a large influence on the immune status of large sectors of the population have changed the overall picture in a very different way? It may be a worthwhile exercise to look for such a signal in the mortality figures.
Turning to the Covid years, the chart below shows the excess mortality for both NRM and RD for the period 2020-2023, as well as the number of vaccine doses administered. Here we can see that the usual mortality patterns are at first completely disrupted, and this is consistent with the argument that a new pathogen which had never been encountered before had arrived and consequently had an outsize influence on acute mortality. However, by 2023 we can see that the ratio between NRM and RD has once again settled back to normal:
Average for the whole period is 4.49.