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Life Expectancy Falls Again as COVID, Overdoses Take a Toll

People in the U.S. are living 2.7 years less since the pandemic

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Life expectancy in the U.S. fell for the second year in a row in 2021, marking the steepest two-year decline since the government began tracking this data point in 1923.​

Between 2019 and 2021, life expectancy fell 2.7 years for the total population, according to provisional life expectancy estimates for 2021 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Life expectancy at birth was 76.1 years in 2021, down almost one year from 77 in 2020 for the overall population.

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In the two-year period, life expectancy for males dropped 3.1 years, to 73.2; for females, it fell 2.3 years, to 79.1.​

“The decline in life expectancy between 2020 and 2021 was primarily due to increases in mortality due to COVID-19, unintentional injuries, heart disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and suicide,” the CDC reported. COVID-19 accounted for about three-quarters of the decline in life expectancy from 2019 to 2021 and about half of the decline from 2020 to 2021. The opioid crisis also weighed on life expectancies for some groups, including Native Americans and Hispanics.

“The decline in life expectancy would have been even greater were it not for the offsetting effects of decreases in mortality due to influenza and pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, perinatal conditions, and Parkinson’s disease,” the report stated. If the mortality rates from influenza and pneumonia had not decreased, the decline in U.S. life expectancy would have been even worse.​

Overdoses weigh on Native Americans

American Indians and Alaska Natives saw biggest life expectancy decline in 2021, dropping 1.9 years. Indigenous Americans now live to an average of 65.2, down 6.6 years since 2019. The higher death rates were blamed on COVID-19, unintentional injuries including drug overdoses, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. In 2021, about 109,000 people died due to drug overdoses, a record high in the country.

For white people, COVID-19 accounted for over half of the deaths. Drug overdoses and other unintentional injuries contributed about 12 percent of the decline in life expectancy for this group. Life expectancy for white people was 76.4 last year. In 2021, life expectancy among Black people declined less than for white people, in part because during the early days of the pandemic, some minority groups died at a higher rate. As of 2021, Black people had a life expectancy of 70.8 years.

Unintentional injuries, including drug overdoses, were the leading cause of a decline in life expectancy for Hispanic and non-Hispanic Asian populations in 2021. COVID-19 came in second, accounting for about a quarter of the deaths for the groups. 

Asian Population has the highest life expectancy

Among the different groups, life expectancy was highest for Asian men and women in the U.S. Asian women live to an average of 85.6 years, and Asian men have a life expectancy of 81.2 years, according to the CDC. Hispanic women are the only other group with a life expectancy over 80 years.​

American Indian men had the lowest life expectancy, hovering at around 61.5 years in 2021. Black men had the second-lowest life expectancy, at 66.7 years in 2021.

Donna Fuscaldo is a contributing writer and editor focusing on personal finance and health. She has spent over two decades writing and covering news for several national publications and websites, including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investopedia and HerMoney.

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