More and more people in England and Wales are being found in a decomposed state, long after dying, reveals a new study – a trend that's been noticeable over the last 40 years, and which isolation linked to the coronavirus pandemic may have made worse.

Researchers analyzed data from the UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS), studying statistics logged for deaths between 1979 and 2020.

While there's no official record of dead bodies that have gone undiscovered for an extended period of time, the team used two International Classification of Diseases (ICD) codes – which are recorded – as proxies to make an estimation.

Those codes are R98 for an "unattended death", and R99 for "other ill-defined and unknown causes of mortality".

The stats show a continual rise in these types of deaths, suggesting that more people are dying and decomposing before they're found.

"While mortality from all other causes decreased from 1979 to 2020, the opposite was seen for deaths from R98 and R99 (or 'undefined deaths'), with men more affected than women," write the researchers in their published paper.

"There was a sharp rise in these deaths in both sexes but in men particularly in the 1990s and 2000s, coinciding with a time when overall mortality was rapidly improving."

The team was from the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, and the Public Health Scotland and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK.

The study makes reference to two cases, from May 2021 and February 2022, where deaths were not noticed for several years – in the former case, for three-and-a-half years in total.

These cases also coincide with periods when the UK was under lockdown to halt the spread of COVID-19.

According to the researchers, a "breakdown in formal and informal social support networks" could well be behind the trend, and the suggestion is that vulnerable people are "falling through the gaps" when it comes to being supported.

Previous studies have linked social isolation and loneliness with a greater chance of an early death, and we know that chronic or severe loneliness is common across the world – something that the pandemic would not have helped with.

The researchers now want to see more done to track this trend – an ONS code specifically for bodies that are decomposed when discovered would be a start – which would then be a starting point for trying to tackle the gruesome problem.

"The increase in people found dead from unknown causes suggests wider societal breakdowns of both formal and informal social support networks," write the researchers. "They are concerning and warrant urgent further investigation."

"We call on national and international authorities to consider measures that would make it possible to identify these deaths more easily in routine data."

The research has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.