COVID Drove Biggest Drop in U.S. Life Expectancy Since World War II

WEDNESDAY, July 21, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Exactly how deadly has the coronavirus pandemic been in the United States? New research confirms it has had a big hand in slashing life expectancy by a year and a half.

That's the lowest level of life expectancy since 2003 and the largest one-year decline since World War II, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

"This was a very serious event. I mean, a loss of one year and a half doesn't sound like a lot, but it is," said lead study author Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

"This is a very large decline and what that means is that our population is really greatly affected," she said. In fact, overall life expectancy declined from nearly 79 in 2019 to about 77 in 2020.

Not only that, but the life expectancy gap between men and women grew to nearly six years during the pandemic. Between 2000 and 2010, the gap had narrowed to just under five years, the researchers noted.

The drop in life expectancy was mainly due to deaths from COVID-19, which accounted for 74% of the decline, the findings showed.

About 11% of the decline was from more deaths from accidents and unintentional injuries. Drug overdoses accounted for more than one-third of all unintentional injury deaths. Overdose deaths reached an all-time high in 2020, at more than 93,000, the NCHS reported.

Murders accounted for about 3% of the drop in life expectancy. Diabetes accounted for 2.5%, and liver disease accounted for just over 2%, the researchers found.

Arias expects that the decline in life expectancy will continue for some time.

"If we were to eliminate COVID completely, we might return to a mortality pattern like we had back in 2019," she said. "But it could also be the case that the pandemic has indirect effects that we haven't seen before."

For example, people who missed checkups and screenings could be diagnosed with diseases later and at more advanced stages than they otherwise would have, Arias explained.

"We may not return to the levels we had, even if we were to completely get rid of COVID," she said.

Other findings in the report included:

  • Though U.S. Hispanic adults live longer than Black or white Americans, they had the largest decline in life expectancy of these groups in 2020, with a drop from nearly 82 years in 2019 to just under 79 years in 2020.

  • Hispanic men had the largest drop in life expectancy at nearly four years. COVID-19 accounted for 90% of the decline among Hispanic people.

  • The gap in life expectancy between Hispanics and white people closed significantly. The gap between Hispanics and Black people remained essentially the same.

  • Life expectancy for Black people declined nearly three years, from about 75 in 2019 to 72 in 2020. COVID-19 was responsible for 59% of the decline.

  • The disparity in life expectancy between white and Black people increased from four years in 2019 to nearly six years in 2020. This gap had been closing over the past three decades.

  • Life expectancy for white people dropped by just over one year, from nearly 79 in 2019 to just under 78 in 2020. COVID-19 was responsible for 68% of the decline.

According to Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, "In many ways, the report tells us the profound impact of COVID, not only just direct COVID deaths, but of course, on other diseases that probably were exacerbated. Losing a year of life expectancy is a big, big deal."

Benjamin said that the nation's anemic response to the pandemic resulted in more deaths than there had to be.

"Certainly, we would have had less deaths from COVID had we responded in a more effective manner," he said. "Early on, if we had a more effective national leadership on public health, much more aggressive testing and contact tracing, it would have been better. We would have still had a pandemic, it would have still been bad, but not as bad as it was."

Getting people vaccinated against COVID-19 is essential, but it's not the total answer to improving life expectancy, Benjamin said.

"It's not just COVID, it's heart disease, lung disease, cancer, all those things — we're not out of this yet, because of all the care that was delayed during COVID," he explained.

Also, Benjamin isn't sure that America has learned its lesson about pandemics.

"Another one is just around the corner," he said. "The mistaken lesson from this is not that this is the 100-year pandemic and we're not going to see another one for 100 years — no, no, no, no, no. We had lots of near misses. We had SARS, monkeypox, West Nile virus, Dengue, Zika, Ebola, which all had pandemic potential. We're only one mutation, one plane ride away, from something very, very bad."

The report was published July 21 in a NCHS Vital Statistics Rapid Release.

More information

For more on U.S. life expectancy, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Elizabeth Arias, PhD, demographer, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, Md.; Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director, American Public Health Association; NCHS' Vital Statistics Rapid Release, "Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for 2020," July 21, 2021

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