US life expectancy decreased by 1.5 years during the pandemic – largest drop since WWII
The United States saw the largest one-year drop in life expectancy since World War II during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Hispanic and Black populations saw the largest declines, according to government data released Wednesday.
Life expectancy at birth declined by 1.5 years in 2020 to 77.3 – the lowest level since 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics found. Between 1942 and 1943, during the Second World War, life expectancy in the U.S. declined 2.9 years.
"The numbers are devastating," said Chantel Martin, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "The declines that we see, particularly among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black population, are massive."
Life expectancy declined by:
- 3 years for the Hispanic population, to 78.8 years
- 2.9 years for the non-Hispanic Black population, to 71.8 years
- 1.2 years for the non-Hispanic white population, to 77.6 years
Hispanic men, in particular, saw the greatest drop, 3.7 years.
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Health experts said the life expectancy data is further proof of the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color.
Black Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19 at 2.9 times the rate of white Americans and die at two times the rate, according to CDC data. Latinos are hospitalized at 2.8 times the rate and die at 2.3 times the rate of white Americans. Native Americans are hospitalized at 3.3 times the rate and die at 2.4 times the rate.
"We were sounding the alarm early on, and I think (the data) reflects directly the longstanding structural racism in this country and how that disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic communities. It impacts where they live, work, and play and ultimately impacted the risk of dying from COVID-19," Martin said.
COVID-19 deaths contributed to about 74% of the decline in life expectancy among the general U.S. population, according to the data. Another 11% of the decline can be attributed to increases in deaths from accidents or unintentional injuries, including drug overdose deaths.
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For the Hispanic population, however, COVID-19 was responsible for 90% of the decline in life expectancy. For the Black population, which saw life expectancy reach the lowest level since 2000, COVID-19 contributed to 59% of the decline. For the white population, which saw life expectancy reach the lowest level since 2002, COVID-19 contributed to 68% of the decline.
While the disparity in life expectancy between the non-Hispanic white and Black population had been narrowing over the past three decades, the gap increased from 4.1 years in 2019 to 5.8 years in 2020. The life expectancy gap between the Hispanic and white populations, meanwhile, narrowed.
"I really hope that this is a wake-up call for the U.S.," said Jennifer Karas Montez, a professor of sociology and co-director of the Policy, Place, and Population Health Lab at Syracuse University. "We're relying a lot on a medical fix – on vaccines. And I don't think that's enough."
Data released earlier this year suggested life expectancy declined by just one year, and the Black population saw the greatest decline. Those figures did not take into account the fall and winter surges that led to record COVID-19 deaths.
For the Hispanic population, 68% of all COVID-19 deaths occurred in the second half of the year. For the white population, 71% of deaths were in the second half.
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Karas Montez said it's important to consider the effect of COVID-19 on U.S. life expectancy in the context of life expectancy trends before the pandemic.
Life expectancy has increased in the U.S. since the 1980s but at a slower rate than in other high-income countries, she said. Around 2010, life expectancy in the U.S. stopped increasing, and it started declining around 2014.
"We were already pretty high-risk as a nation of not being able to withstand this kind of exogenous shock to population health," Karas Montez said. "So what does rebounding from this virus look like? I can't imagine a scenario where we're going to rebound and be better than we were before the pandemic because the long-term trajectory, since 2010, has been a plateau or decline."
A study last month from Virginia Commonwealth University found the coronavirus pandemic widened the life expectancy gap between the U.S. and 16 other high-income countries. Researchers found the gap increased from 3.05 years in 2018 to 4.69 years in 2020. This decrease in life expectancy over the past two years was 8.5 times the average decrease in peer countries.
"Even if we were to vaccinate 100% of the population, I think we would go back to the very precarious situation we were in, in 2019 in terms of life expectancy," Karas Montez said. "We have got to shore up our foundation here in terms of the social, economic and health care infrastructure. We have got to shore that up so that we can better withstand something like this in the future, because it will happen again."
Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez