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Who Are All the People Dying of Flu?

Summary:
Many people are baffled to hear that tens of thousands of Americans still die of flu every year.  The CDC estimate for 2017-2018 is 61,000, markedly more than die in all auto accidents.  Yet I’ve never heard of any specific person dying of flu.  So who are these people? The answer, roughly, is: the elderly.  Here are combined influenza and pneumonia death rates by age from National Vital Statistics Reports: What about total mortality? Is the relatively low population of 85+ Americans enough to outweigh their enormous mortality rate?  No; check out the numbers for 2017: Thus, Americans 85+ experience almost over 40% of all combined flu/pneumonia mortality, while Americans under 45 years old endure less than 2%.  The main reason we rarely hear about flu deaths is

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Many people are baffled to hear that tens of thousands of Americans still die of flu every year.  The CDC estimate for 2017-2018 is 61,000, markedly more than die in all auto accidents.  Yet I’ve never heard of any specific person dying of flu.  So who are these people?

The answer, roughly, is: the elderly.  Here are combined influenza and pneumonia death rates by age from National Vital Statistics Reports:

Who Are All the People Dying of Flu?

What about total mortality? Is the relatively low population of 85+ Americans enough to outweigh their enormous mortality rate?  No; check out the numbers for 2017:

Who Are All the People Dying of Flu?

Thus, Americans 85+ experience almost over 40% of all combined flu/pneumonia mortality, while Americans under 45 years old endure less than 2%.  The main reason we rarely hear about flu deaths is that when people die of flu, folks at the funeral probably call “old age” the cause of death.  Logically, this isn’t even wrong, because there’s joint causation; if the deceased weren’t old, they almost certainly wouldn’t have died of flu.  And philosophically, you can accurately say that most people who die of flu would soon have died of something else.  Wiping out the flu would save a lot of lives, but sadly wouldn’t save them for long.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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