This November 2021 photo shows a poster promoting Narcan, an opioid-overdose antidote, inside the Juneau Public Health Center. According to statistics shared recently by the state, overdose deaths have been on the rise recently. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

This November 2021 photo shows a poster promoting Narcan, an opioid-overdose antidote, inside the Juneau Public Health Center. According to statistics shared recently by the state, overdose deaths have been on the rise recently. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Alaska by the somber and strange numbers

Annual stats report shows life expectancy dropping, COVID, drug deaths up.

Average life expectancy in Alaska declined by five years between 2017 and 2021 — nearly all of it since 2019 — while birth and fertility rates dropped by an ever higher percentage during that time, according to the state’s most recent vital statistics report released last week.

The report also noted a wide variety of serious and strange accountings of Alaska, from a huge increase in drug and alcohol-related deaths to the most-popular baby names. It also noted a slight increase in the state’s population during the most recent year, the oldest resident, and the biggest age differential between a newly married couple.

The decreasing life expectancy rate is largely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, but officials with the State Department of Health said Monday a complex set of factors is responsible beyond deaths from the disease itself.

“What we are seeing over time is during the pandemic Alaskans didn’t go to their doctors, so we saw a lot of chronic diseases…that were unmanaged,” said just-appointed Acting Commissioner Heidi Hedberg, who previously served as director of the Division of Public Health.

“There’s a lag of couple of years with many of the deaths due to lack of treatment, so they are likely to remain statistically significant in the near term,” she added.

Delays or avoidance of treatment for regular checkups as well as conditions such as obesity and smoking was also a nationwide problem, said Coleman Cutchins, a doctor with the state’s Office of Substance Misuse & Addiction Prevention.

However, COVID-19 itself was a major factor as it was the third leading cause of death in 2021, the vital statistics report noted.

“Prior to 2020, accidents were typically the third leading cause of death, although this was replaced by COVID-19 in 2021,” the report states. “COVID-19 was the leading cause of death for Asian/(Pacific Islanders) and Hispanic people.”

A report focusing specifically on excess deaths states “COVID-19 played a verifiable role in approximately 57% of the 1,933 excess deaths estimated” for 2021.

“The pandemic significantly impacted Alaska’s mortality rates, which disparately affected populations by sex, race, region, and age,” the mortality report states. “Although more elderly Alaskans tend to die from COVID-19, the pandemic increased premature deaths among non-elderly adults as well.”

Yet another report singled out drug overdose deaths as a rapidly growing concern.

“In 2021, Alaska experienced the largest percent increase in overdose deaths of any state in the United States,” the Drug Overdose Mortality report states.

There was a 74% increase in the overall drug overdose death rate between 2020 and 2021, according to Hedberg. The largest increases involving fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) at 150% and and methamphetamine (a psychostimulant) at 148%. The largest decreases were cocaine and benzodiazepine overdose deaths at 48% and 40%, respectively.

In 2021, people at comparatively higher risk of dying from drug overdose included men, American Indian/Alaska Native people, young adults, and those residing in the Anchorage Public Health Region, according to the statistics report.

Population and demographics

In 2021, Alaska’s resident population was 734,323 persons, up from 733,391 persons in 2020. The male/female split was 51%/49%.

Alaska’s population distribution was 65% White, 4% Black, 16% Alaska Native/Inuit, 8% Asian/Pacific Islander, 7% Hispanic and 8% multiple race.

The mean age was 65.9, while the oldest resident was 104.

The average age of a new mother was 28.9, the oldest mother was 48 and the youngest 14. The oldest “other parent” was 71.

A total of 64% of mothers received “adequate prenatal care,” and there was an average death rate of six infants per 1,000 between 2019 and 2021.

There were 4,625 marriages and 2,286 divorces in Alaska in 2021, according to the report.

Abortion

There were 1,226 abortions in 2021, a slight increase from 1,206 the previous year, according to a separate report focusing specifically on the subject. There were few significant variances in categories between the two years, although there was roughly 5% increase in Medicaid-funded terminations of pregnancies (43.8%) and a somewhat smaller drop in self-funded terminations (39.5%).

The gestation period for abortions was less than six weeks for 29.9% of women, 7-9 weeks for 44.7%, 10-13 weeks for 19%, 14-15 weeks for 3.9% and 16-17 weeks for 2.3%, One abortion occurred between 18-20 weeks and two beyond the 20th week.

The percentage of abortions by race/ethnicity varied significantly from the statewide population ratios in 2021 only in white people having a lower ratio (53.1% of all abortions while making up 65% of the population) and Alaska Natives/Inuit people a higher ratio (21.4% of abortions among 16% of the population). White people, who accounted for 46.9% of abortions in 2017, did show the only significant increase in percentage between then and 2021.

There has been a significant drop in traditional medical suction abortions, from 72.4% in 2017 to 53.9% in 2021, while drug-induced Mifepristone abortions increased from 24.3% in 2017 to 36.1% in 2021.

Unintended pregnancies were slightly lower in Alaska at 23.1% compared to the national average of 25.8% in 2019, the most recent year direct comparisons are available.

There were two abortions for girls in Alaska under 15 of age in 2021, a number that has fluctuated between two and seven since 2017.

Other tidbits

Somewhere there’s newlywed couple consisting of a person 15-19 years old married to somebody 55 years of age or over. There’s a 2% chance it’s a same-sex couple (which happens to be both the statewide marriage and divorce percentages of same-sex couple).

The most popular baby names for boys, in order: 1) Noah/Oliver tied, 2) Wyatt, 3) Liam, 4) James, 5) Lucas/William. Elijah and Theodore went from second and third, respectively, in 2020 to off the list.

The most popular baby names for girls, in order: 1) Amelia, 2) Ava/Hazel/Olivia, 3) Charlotte, 4) Emma/Evelyn, 5) Aurora/Eleanor.

October was the most common month of death, with 742 deaths (12%, up from 8% in 18-19). Fall is generally the death season with 10% each month between August and November, February saw the fewest deaths. Most deaths occurred in a hospital (43%), followed by the decedent’s residence (39%). Cremation was the most common method of disposition (72%), followed by burial (25%).

Children under 15 years of age made up 20% of Alaska’s population in 2021. Seniors aged 65 or older years made up 13%.

Most of Alaska’s population was concentrated in the Anchorage region (39%). This was followed by the Interior and Matanuska-Susitna regions (both at 15%).

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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