Is Covid-19 killing more women than we realise? – new analysis from Dr Jonathan Pearson- Stuttard, Head of Health Analytics at LCP

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In the early days of the Covid pandemic, certain groups were at higher risk of dying with Covid-19 on their death certificate, notably older people and men.  This may have led to the perception that Covid was more of an issue for men than for women. 

But new analysis of official data by Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, Head of Health Analytics at LCP, has shown that when the full impact of Covid is assessed, deaths amongst women are almost as high as among men.  And in the most recent figures, ‘excess deaths’ in the community have been at a largely equal rate among men and women.  The analysis, presented today at LCP’s annual conference, goes on to warn that if the indirect impacts - those changes to the healthcare system because of the pandemic – get worse, the impact is likely to be felt hardest by women.

The number of deaths arising from Covid has been measured in a number of different ways.  A narrow measure, focusing just on those who die directly from Covid, suggested that men have been 40% more likely than women to be killed by the disease.  But the increase in deaths in 2020 compared with recent years is far more than just the numbers with Covid on their death certificate.  It has become increasingly apparent that the pandemic has had wider knock-on effects which have had an adverse impact on health outcomes.  Key areas include:

  • Disruption of chronic disease care including lower take-up of cancer care – between April and September 2020, 300,000 fewer people saw a cancer specialist compared with previous years;
  • Increased strain across social care including significant impacts on residents’ day to day lives, being less able to see or interact with families;
  • Deaths in the community remaining above the 5-year average for all of the 5 leading killers

Latest figures show that deaths due to Covid-19 are now less than half of the total number of ‘excess’ deaths in the community, and that more attention needs to focus on the indirect impacts of the pandemic where the consequences for women appear to be more severe.  Indeed, excess deaths ‘in the community’ were more numerous than all deaths across all settings specifically attributed to Covid over the summer period, suggesting that greater attention needs to be given to what is happening outside hospitals. Deaths from the most common cancers were all above the five year average, with deaths from lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in the community, up 29% and 40% in men and women respectively up to September.

The single largest cause of death for women is dementia, and this impacts a significant proportion of those living in care homes.  ‘Excess’ deaths in care homes from the leading killers have risen this year by 300 (or 7.9%) among men, but by 5,000 (or 27%) amongst women, suggesting that this may have been a key way in which the wider impact of Covid has affected women more than the headline death statistics would suggest. This has contributed to deaths among women from Dementia and Alzheimer’s being up 22% in total in 2020.  The biggest growth from this cause has been in the community (outside hospitals or care homes) where the numbers are up 75%.

By contrast, for men, where heart disease remains the biggest killer, a 26% increase in deaths from Ischaemic heart disease in the community has been largely offset by a 22% increase in hospital deaths.  In other words, changes to patterns of health care have largely ‘displaced’ deaths among men from heart disease but with only a limited overall impact.

Commenting, Dr Jonathan Pearson-Stuttard, head of LCP’s Health Analytics team, said:

“Weekly ONS death data suggests that community excess deaths have continued over recent weeks and at a largely equal rate among men and women.   It would therefore be wrong to think that the Covid pandemic is disproportionately taking the lives of men.

As we look to the winter, when we can expect health and social care resources to be stretched further than ever before, politicians and health leaders are desperate to mitigate the indirect impacts of the pandemic worsening. If they fail, it is likely to be felt hardest by women”.

You can read more in Dr Jonathan's analysis here