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

The coronavirus pandemic is primarily to blame for the steep dip in 2020

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 08:  Memorials for those who died from COVID-19 hang from the front gate of Greenwood Cemetery in New York.

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Memorials hang from the front gate of Greenwood Cemetery in New York City during a June 2021 event organized by Naming the Lost Memorials to remember and celebrate the lives of those killed by the pandemic.

En español | 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.

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"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.

Other contributors to the decline in life expectancy in 2020 were drug overdoses, which claimed the lives of about 93,000 Americans in 2020, homicides, diabetes, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

  • The overall life expectancy for Americans in 2020 was 77.3 years, down from 78.8 years in 2019.

  • For Hispanics, it fell from 81.8 years in 2019 to 78.8 years in 2020; COVID-19 was responsible for 90 percent of this decline, health officials note.

  • And for Blacks, it went from 74.7 years in 2019 to 71.8 in 2020, which is the lowest life expectancy for African Americans since 2000.

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What's more, the gap in life expectancy between Black Americans and their white peers, which had been narrowing over the last three decades, grew wider in 2020. The disparity in life expectancy between whites and Blacks increased from 4.1 years in 2019 to 5.8 years in 2020. This means white Americans are expected to live 5.8 years longer than Blacks.

Another notable trend: The disparity in life expectancy between men and women grew, from 5.1 years in 2019 to 5.7 years in 2020. Life expectancy for males was 74.5 years in 2020, compared to 80.2 years for females.

What will life expectancy for 2021 look like? That's unclear. Deaths from COVID-19 continue to climb, albeit at a slower rate. So far nearly 610,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. And indirect deaths from the pandemic — such as increases in chronic illnesses due to delayed or avoided care — could prevent trends from immediately rebounding.

"Even if we're able to control the virus, we could still see the indirect effects of the pandemic for years to come,” Arias says.

Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.

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