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Countries with aging populations are most at risk of high COVID-19 death rate

Written by Katie Gordon

Demographic science suggests that governments should consider local and national age structures in COVID-19 mitigation policies.

From social distancing to travel restrictions, governments around the world are being forced to make difficult decisions at rapid rates, in order to mitigate the damage of the COVID-19 pandemic. New research has now highlighted the importance of government officials considering age demographic data within these decisions.

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In all affected countries, deaths from COVID-19 have been concentrated in the older age groups. For this reason, demographers based at Nuffield College at the University of Oxford (UK) set out to demonstrate how a population’s age structure impacts disease transmission and fatalities, focusing on this current coronavirus pandemic.

Described in a brief report, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the researchers examined the role age structure has played so far in Italy and South Korea, two countries severely impacted near the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Then, using data from Italy, they calculated the expected numbers of deaths for other countries based on their respective age demographics.

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With over 23.3% of its population over 65, Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world. Consequentially, the researchers calculated more than 300,000 estimated fatalities in Italy during the current pandemic. Whereas in South Korea, which has a considerably younger population, the researchers predicted fewer than 180,000 fatalities.

The authors also considered Brazil and Nigeria, two countries with similar population sizes but very different age demographics. Brazil’s population is significantly older than Nigeria (2% of the population is over 80 compared to 0.2% in Nigeria) and, as expected, the researchers calculated a significantly higher number of expected deaths (452,694 compared to 142,056).

The findings from this report highlight the significance of age demographics in COVID-19 related fatalities. The authors suggest that disease mitigation policies should consider both local and national age structures as well as intergenerational interactions and encourage countries to specify the age and sex demographics of their case and fatality data.