Life expectancy in the U.S. fell by 1.5 years between 2019 and 2020 — the largest one-year decline since World War II, when it dropped 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943, according to a new federal report. And COVID-19 is the primary reason for the plunge. It contributed to nearly three-fourths (74 percent) of the decline.
For Black and Hispanic Americans, two populations who have been disproportionately hit by illness and death throughout the pandemic, the decrease was even more drastic. These groups saw about a three-year decline in life expectancy.
"This is a really big deal,” says Elizabeth Arias, the lead author on the new National Center for Health Statistics report. Life expectancy — which is a snapshot of a population's health, defined as the average number of years an infant born in a given year is expected to live — generally changes in very small increments from year to year. For example, life expectancy inched up 0.1 year from 2018 to 2019. And for the most part, it's been gradually increasing for decades.
"So to see this big change in one point in time, it means that something very catastrophic or something very large happened. It points to a huge number of excess deaths or unexpected deaths,” Arias adds.
Pandemic drives up death totals
About 3.4 million Americans died in 2020, with deaths from COVID-19 accounting for about 11 percent of the total, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. The new disease became the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. last year, just behind heart disease and cancer.