U.S. Life Expectancy Falls Further
News Brief: The pandemic continues to take a toll, but there are surprising nuances to the latest data
Life expectancy in the United States fell from 78.86 years in 2019 to 76.99 years in 2020. That much we already knew. New data released today finds it fell further in 2021, to 76.60 years. That’s a net loss of 2.26 years in 2 years — the biggest drop since WWII.
On average, 19 other high-income countries saw a decline of 0.57 years over the same period, with a drop in 2020 but an uptick in 2021.
“While other high-income countries saw their life expectancy increase in 2021, recovering about half of their losses, U.S. life expectancy continued to fall,” said study team member Steven Woolf, MD, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This speaks volumes about the life consequences of how the U.S. handled the pandemic, and in a country where the U.S. Constitution and 10th Amendment grant public health authority to the states, I believe the U.S. catastrophe speaks volumes about the policies and behaviors of U.S. governors — at least some of them. A highly effective vaccine was available in 2021 that made COVID-19 deaths almost completely preventable.”
Woolf has been leading the production of new reports annually on life expectancy. This one was published online but has yet to be peer-reviewed. Life expectancy, as a measure, forecasts expected lifespan at birth if known death rates at the time were to remain consistent throughout a given newborn’s life, based on age-specific mortality rates. It puts more emphasis on the odds of death late in life than early on.
COVID-19 variants delta and omicron played a role in the ongoing decline in U.S. life expectancy, even though other countries that dealt with these variants saw life expectancy rise, Woolf says.
“Deaths from these variants occurred almost entirely among unvaccinated people,” he says.
Another interesting tidbit from the new research: U.S. drop in 2020 occurred across racial lines and hit Black and Hispanic people hardest. But in 2021, while it fell again among white people, life expectancy rose among Black people and stayed roughly level for Hispanics.
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