While no one is immune to the potentially serious and even fatal complications of COVID-19, the disease clearly affects seniors more than any other age group. In fact, COVID-19’s severity among the elderly is one reason Italy, with Europe’s oldest population, has suffered over 15,000 deaths and 125,000 confirmed cases as of April 5. How is coronavirus affecting seniors in the United States? What does the death rate in the U.S. look like in comparison to other countries? 

U.S. COVID-19 Death Rates for Seniors

According to the CDC on March 18, about 80% of coronavirus deaths in the United States were adults 65 and older. This analysis only considered 44 cases dating between February 12 to March 16 and found that 34% of deaths were among those 85 and older and 46% were among people 65 to 84. 

It’s likely that COVID-19 has a higher death rate among older adults because the immune system weakens with age and seniors are more likely to have underlying health conditions like lung disease, diabetes, and heart conditions that exacerbate the symptoms of coronavirus. Seniors aren’t just facing higher rates of complication and death from COVID-19; it seems infection rates also increase with age. 

With more recent data, it seems the death rate for people who are 80+ is 20% or higher. 

In South Korea, China, and Italy, fatality rates have been 6.2% to more than 20% for people who are 70 and above, although the fatality rate depends on testing. In countries with widespread testing for coronavirus, the death rate is significantly lower as it takes into account people who may have no symptoms or mild symptoms that do not require hospitalization. In much of the United States, testing has largely focused only on people who are exhibiting symptoms and especially on people who are admitted to the hospital. 

In the UK, estimates show that the death rate for those over 80 is about 10x higher than average. Despite these high rates for seniors, most older people who get COVID-19 will have mild to moderate symptoms and recover. 

Age Isn’t All That Determines Risk

While age is the single greatest predictor of who will face the most serious consequences of COVID-19, underlying health also plays a major role in who requires hospitalization. Many younger people who die from coronavirus have had underlying health conditions. This means seniors with underlying conditions are at an even greater risk than normal for their age group. 

In China, for example, more than 10% of people who died had a cardiovascular condition and about 7.5% had diabetes. More than 5% had high blood pressure or respiratory disease. In Italy, 99% of those who have died from COVID-19 had other illnesses, according to a study conducted by Italy’s national health authority. 

After examining medical records from 18% of the nation’s fatalities, only 0.8% of victims had no underlying health conditions. Nearly half of victims had at least 3 underlying health conditions, most notably high blood pressure (75%), diabetes (35%), and heart disease (35%). The average age of those who died in Italy has been 79.5; of the victims under 40, all were men with serious health conditions. 

The most vulnerable group of Americans includes seniors in nursing homes with serious health issues. Nursing home visitation has been halted across the United States and long-term care facilities have been hit hard with coronavirus. In New York, 15% of all COVID-19 deaths have been connected with nursing homes since the beginning of April. 1 out of every 3 nursing homes in the state has been affected. In New York City, about 25% of deaths have been nursing home residents. 

Washington has reported similar numbers. A nursing home in Kirkland, WA was the site of the first coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Nursing homes are often understaffed even in the best of times and officials have found that nursing home staff inadvertently spread coronavirus to other facilities when they are forced to cover shortages between multiple facilities.