The toll for people putting off health concerns last year is becoming clear, and it should be a clear reminder for people to return to routine screenings.

It seems odd at first glance to think that people neglected their health in a year dominated by the worst pandemic in decades. Especially given that people were provably taking basic steps to protect their health. The flu season was almost nonexistent as people got their flu shots, wore masks and washed their hands frequently. The common cold dropped significantly as well.

But those results came from things people could do easily, wherever they happened to be. Getting a colonoscopy or a mammogram isn’t exactly a do-it-yourself project. That type of lifesaving screening requires a trip to a doctor’s office or hospital. It’s also precisely the kind of non-emergency visit people were discouraged from making in the spring of 2020, when it looked like hospitals could be overwhelmed.

Last September we took a look at the effects. National data said most screenings were way down. Local health care providers said the same. At the time it was too early to say what the effects were, but several doctors said they were genuinely concerned.

That concern seems warranted. New federal data shows death rates soared in 2020, and not just from COVID. Common killers like heart disease and diabetes saw their tolls rise as well. The former statistic had been falling for quite a while, but jumped up by more than 3%. The latter rose by 14%.

Those percentages don’t tell the full story. Three percent sounds tiny. But it means about 32,000 more deaths from heart disease. Diabetes killed an additional 13,000 people.

This is particularly concerning given that heart disease deaths had been trending downward. In the past 20 years the rate rose only one other time. That was in 2015, and that was an increase of less than a percentage point.

There are some caveats to be aware of. The Centers for Disease Control only gave the numbers. It didn’t try to explain why they happened. But some experts put the blame squarely on worries about COVID exposure at hospitals.

Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, a researcher at Northwestern University, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying hospitals saw “dramatic declines in patients presenting to the emergency room with heart attacks, stroke or heart failure,” when hospitalizations for COVID spiked.

The news from 2020 wasn’t entirely gloomy. Cancer deaths continued their decline. But if people don’t go back to routine screenings, that can change.

We can hear some of the efforts to dismiss these concerns now. They’re national numbers, not local. They’re not even Wisconsin. That’s true. But another report did include a startling fact about Wisconsin: The state had more deaths in 2020 than births.

Wisconsin wasn’t alone. A total of 25 states had such a gap, including neighboring Michigan. The fact half of U.S. states saw deaths outpace births is being called unprecedented.

Please, listen to your bodies. If something feels wrong, get it checked. Keep up with your routine screenings. If you haven’t had a basic checkup in a while, get that taken care of.

The Chippewa Valley has some of the best health care available anywhere in the U.S. We’re fortunate to have the quality of facilities and personnel we do. But doctors and nurses can’t help anyone if people don’t take basic steps. They can’t make an appointment for you or force you to show up on time. They can send a reminder about an annual screening, but can’t make you pick up the phone to get it scheduled.

The vast majority of health conditions are treatable. And in most cases the earlier a serious health issue is discovered, the more easily it can be treated. Illnesses that were a death sentence a few generations ago are now often cured or approached as a chronic, treatable condition.

Delays and worries during 2020 were understandable. They’re less so now. Don’t let lingering issues become a major crisis. Make that appointment. Keep it.

Take care of your health.