Category: Health and Wellness

Life and Death and Louisiana

Nearly five years ago, after a trip to a work conference in California, I wrote this Straight Talk piece about the stark differences between California and Louisiana from a health perspective. The differences in the health of these two states were so significant that I ended up discussing it with my Dad, the Founder of Straight Talk.

“Hey Pops! Did you ever consider living anywhere else but Louisiana?”

“Why on earth would I want to do that?” Dad asked. “Right here in this (paid-for) house, I am five minutes from three different boat landings where I can launch and do any kind of fishing or hunting you could imagine! We can go offshore to fish from here, salt-water marsh fish, fresh-water fish, crab, go crawfishing, hunt for pretty much anything like deer or rabbit or squirrel or duck, all within a few minutes!”

“Ok,” I said, “But what about other things, like financial security, here in Louisiana?”

“I’ve worked for the same company for over 40 years, then worked another 10 as an independent contractor in the same industry. I know the oilfield here, and everybody in it knows me! Why would I leave all that?”

Running out of ideas, I tried one last thing: “But what about your health? If you stay in Louisiana, you are in a state where life expectancy is more than four years LESS than the national average!” (He ended up living to 83, almost 10 years MORE than the Louisiana average for a male.)

“Let me tell you something, from everything I’ve seen, those last four years ain’t all that great!”

He had me there. My Dad had Louisiana in his blood, it suited him, and he wasn’t about to trade that in on any other location. Done deal.

The COVID Effect on Louisiana’s Life Expectancy

I think a lot about my dad and that conversation when I see various organizations estimate the effect COVID-19 has had on our life expectancy in Louisiana. In 2019, we were 44th in the nation in terms of average life expectancy at 75.7 years overall. We weren’t doing that great to start with; 10 states had life expectancies OVER 80 years old! Hampered by our high rates of tobacco use, obesity, diabetes, and untreated high blood pressure and cholesterol, Louisiana was struggling even before COVID-19 showed up. And COVID-19 really knocked us for a loop.

For much of 2020, many people stopped going to their doctors for their regular check-ups or any other non-emergency care. This means their chronic conditions, like high blood pressure, or diabetes, or high cholesterol, were less likely to be controlled, which can be very dangerous. Several times in 2020, hospitals were so full of COVID-19 patients that they had to stop treating anything else that was non-life-threatening. We didn’t have vaccines until the last two weeks of 2020, so our best bet to avoid getting sick was to stay away from other people. Businesses had to close for a while; it was a real mess. More dings to the health of Louisianians.

Now, in 2022, we are just coming out of our FIFTH wave of COVID-19 infections and starting to learn how to live with the threat of this virus always hanging over our heads. Now that we have the protection from vaccines for anyone 5+ and boosters for anyone 12+, it’s time to get back to health care basics. We need to be in close communication with our primary care doctors, taking our meds and managing all of our chronic conditions. You do not want to come through nearly two years of a pandemic only to have a heart attack or stroke or get diagnosed with late-stage cancer that could have been avoided by keeping up with your care.

As an economist, one of the ways I try to measure COVID-19’s effects on us is to look at the financial impact of the waves of COVID-19 we have endured. This had a direct component to life expectancy as well.

For example, during 2020, payouts of death benefits by life insurance companies ROSE by the highest amount since 1918. Payouts in 2020 were more than 15% HIGHER than they were in 2019. That’s a hard, documented financial effect that points to how many people COVID-19 killed. The only time in the U.S. those payouts rose by a bigger percentage was in 1918, after the first year of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Then, payouts rose 41% in a single year! Keep in mind that life insurance companies don’t pay out unless a covered person passes away. It’s the only circumstance to trigger those payments.

Another interesting financial change was that COVID-19 forced more people to consider the bigger questions in life and death. Life insurance sales during 2021 ROSE by the fastest amount since the HIV epidemic over 25 years ago. COVID-19 forced people to grapple with their own mortality, and that has rippled through our economy. That’s my wheelhouse.

Life and Death and Louisiana

But, I started this article to talk about life and death and Louisiana. The latest numbers from the Louisiana Department of Health suggest that COVID-19 so far has taken more than 16,000 lives in our state — before their time. That couldn’t help but push down our overall life expectancy. The best data sources indicate that life expectancy went down during 2020 by nearly two years, and that factor was even more deadly among African Americans and Hispanics under 65, whose life expectancy went down about three years. In a single year, that’s a huge loss.

To give you a feel for how these effects on life expectancy look in Louisiana, in the years leading up to 2020, we lost an average of 43,000 residents who died of various causes each year. In 2020, that number leapt up to 56,000. That’s a 30% increase in deaths in a single year, with COVID-19 a clear factor. Deaths increased by 30%. In one year.

Even more interesting, in Louisiana during 2020, accidental deaths were up 40%, and homicides also were up by 40%! Did COVID-19, or the economic and social changes wrought by our responses to living in a pandemic, cause these increases as well? We are still studying this, but all these changes, including significant jumps in accidental or crime-related deaths, all happening at the same time, seems too big to be a coincidence. More to come on these correlations.

The Straight Talk is, COVID-19 has huge implications for our state that we are just beginning to understand and assimilate into our data. I talked about Long COVID effects in my last post here: but the final costs in terms of lives and money have yet to be calculated. I know you’ve heard this before, but these grim stats intensify the reality that vaccination and boosting against COVID-19 are huge, huge factors in righting our state’s economic and social ship. As we’ve said here before, the best path to minimize COVID-19’s disruption in our state, our lives, and our health and financial futures as well, leads right through vaccination and boosting. Don’t hesitate.

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