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Elderly people make up 75% of COVID-19 deaths. Many more have died from isolation


Senior citizens - people over 65 - account for 16% of the U.S. population but 75% of deaths from COVID-19, according to the CDC. Doctors say there are even more deaths that are harder to figure among seniors who've been isolated but die from causes that may be related to extended loneliness and isolation.

As we enter a third year of this pandemic, we wanted to know more about its impact on older Americans. We've reached Dr. Rachel Weiskittle, assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Thank you so much for being with us.

RACHEL WEISKITTLE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So loneliness can also be lethal. We've learned that.

WEISKITTLE: Yes, that's absolutely true.

SIMON: Help us understand how we should see that.

WEISKITTLE: Recent studies have indicated that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking up to three cigarettes a day. It has such a negative impact on physical and mental health that it's recognized as a public health risk. For example, Japan and the United Kingdom have appointed a minister of loneliness to try to combat the risks of loneliness and isolation. And there has been a lot of particular focus on the way these risks affect older adults specifically.

SIMON: In the early days of the pandemic, it was thought especially important to keep elderly people, who were considered to be the most vulnerable medically, isolated from possible infection. How does that look now? Have we learned something from that?

WEISKITTLE: Well, we've learned of the importance of social interactions that we might not typically characterize as social but that make up a lot of our social landscape. So one example that happens with older adults quite often is perhaps having a home health aide or having a medical appointment. We might not typically characterize that as a social experience. But if that is one of the few people that you are interacting with physically in your week-to-week, then that actually makes up a big part of your social experience.

SIMON: You talk to a lot of seniors, Dr. Weiskittle. It's easy for them to sometimes feel written off and left out, isn't it?

WEISKITTLE: Something that has been difficult for older adults throughout this pandemic is that places where they feel safe and socially engaged, like senior centers or faith communities, for example, are places that have also been shut down. And when you consider that these spaces are some of the only times where they feel really heard and understood by others because we are in such an ageist society that does tend to overlook the needs of older adults - and compounded by the impact of living in a society that doesn't even recognize you as often, in the media or in TV shows you're not really represented, and it can be really easy to feel overlooked in all aspects of your life.

SIMON: Throughout this pandemic, we've heard phrases like, well, they were 80. What do you expect?

WEISKITTLE: Yeah, that was something that shocked me. At the very beginning of the pandemic, I remember that. Even, like, suggesting that older adults should be sacrificed or that they would be proud to sacrifice their own lives or their own health for the sake of the general community just because so many people were expressing a loud desire for things to return back to normal - and just because someone is older, it doesn't mean that their life is worth any less or that they have less life to live.

SIMON: Dr. Weiskittle, may I ask, given your area of expertise, if you - have you lost a lot of seniors who are friends these past couple of years?

WEISKITTLE: I have, sadly. I've lost quite a few older adult patients of mine, and it has been very difficult. And I've also experienced loss on a personal level. My grandmother was in a retirement home. My grandfather is there with her, but he's in a memory care unit there. And my grandmother passed away just the end of 2021. And many of my family members say that she didn't die from a strict medical condition, but that she died from loneliness because none of us were able to visit her for the entirety of the pandemic until those very, very last few months.

And we could see her health decline physically throughout that entire time, even though there wasn't anything the doctors could really pinpoint in exactly what was going on. Physical health outcomes unfortunately leading to increased mortality risks have been seen all over the country because there are so many older adults that haven't been able to touch another human that they love or interact with family members for almost two years. That's a really, really long time.

SIMON: Well, I'm sorry for your loss, for your losses. Dr. Rachel Weiskittle is a geropsychologist and assistant professor at the University of Colorado. Thank you for all of your time, Doctor.

WEISKITTLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.