Deaths from heart disease, overdoses increased in Colorado during pandemic, data shows

More Coloradans died from heart disease, overdoses and other medical conditions than would be expected during the early months of the pandemic as total fatalities rose by an estimated 22% across the state, according to data analyzed by The Denver Post.

Much of that increase is due to COVID-19, but state death-certificate data suggests the pandemic is having an indirect toll on human life as fatalities from heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic liver disease and drug overdoses rose slightly between March and May.

Health experts said the increase in deaths is partly due to people with serious conditions delaying treatment as the novel coronavirus swept the state. But, they said, it could also reflect the mental health toll the crisis is having on people as health conditions, such as those caused by heart disease and substance use, can be made worse by stress.

“We know that not just physical stress, but mental stress has incredibly negative effects on the body,” said Dr. Wendolyn Gozansky, geriatrician and COVID-19 medical lead for Kaiser Permanente.

There were 12,051 total deaths in Colorado between March and May, up from the 9,892 deaths the state recorded on average for the same period during the three prior years, according to provisional death-certificate data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The novel coronavirus has contributed to an increase in deaths this year. As of Friday, more than 1,730 people had died from COVID-19 in Colorado, while more than 1,850 people have died with the virus in their system, according to the health department.

There’s a weeks-long delay in death-certificate data, so numbers from July are incomplete. However, the data provided by the state shows that, so far, overall fatalities are up roughly 13% for the months of June and July as more than 6,770 people total have died.

One notable cause of death is down during the pandemic: There were 289 suicides in Colorado between March and May, an 11% decrease from the 3-year average of 326 deaths by suicide, according to state data.

A separate analysis of excess deaths by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows there is “no consistent trend” among non-COVID deaths, said Meghan Buran, senior professional research assistant to the dean at the Colorado School of Public Health in an email.

But the state health department reports an uptick in non-COVID deaths. Fatalities from heart disease, including those from heart attacks and strokes, increased during the height of the pandemic, said Kirk Bol, manager of the state health department’s vital statistics program.

Between March and May, there were 2,029 deaths related to heart disease, up 8.2% from the 3-year average of 1,875, according to the death-certificate data analyzed by The Post.

Conditions such as heart attacks and strokes require immediate medical help and doctors have worried that people are not seeking care because they are afraid to go to hospitals during the pandemic and risk infection. Earlier this year, hospitals in Denver reported a drop in the number of patients coming into their emergency rooms.

Unintentional overdoses also increased 57% during those three months to 328 deaths, according to the state data.

“Overdose deaths are beyond what we would see,” Bol said.

There was also an increase in deaths related to Alzheimer’s disease, which reflects how the pandemic has disproportionately affected older Coloradans, especially those living in long-term care facilities, Bol said.

There were 561 deaths from complications from Alzheimer’s during March and May, up from the three-year average of 459 deaths for the same period.

It’s unclear why those fatalities are up and if anything altered the natural progression of the disease in patients.

Older Coloradans make up a large portion of COVID-19 deaths, with almost 53% of such deaths occurring among those 80 and older.

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