The United States saw the biggest one-year decline in life expectancy since World War II during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the biggest declines in Hispanic and black populations, according to government data released Wednesday.
Life expectancy at birth dropped 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 World War II, life expectancy in the US dropped by 2.9 years.
“The numbers are catastrophic,” said Chantal Martin, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “The declines we see, especially among Hispanic and non-Hispanic black populations, are massive.”
Life expectancy declined:
- 3 years for the Hispanic population, 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, 77.6 years
Hispanic men, in particular, saw the biggest decline at 3.7 years.
Life expectancy:The US lags behind high-income countries by a decade. The pandemic made it worse.
Health experts said the life expectancy data is further evidence of the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color.
Black Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19 at a rate 2.9 times the rate of white Americans and die at twice the rate, according to CDC data. Latinos die at 2.8 times the rate of hospitalization and 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, and I think[the data]directly reflects long-standing structural racism in this country and how it disproportionately affects black and Hispanic communities. It affects where they are. live, work and play and eventually risk dying from COVID-19,” Martin said.
According to the data, COVID-19 deaths contributed about 74% to the decline in life expectancy among the general US population. Another 11% of the decline can be attributed to an increase 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 a 90% drop in life expectancy. For the black population, which drove life expectancy to the lowest level since 2000, COVID-19 contributed 59% of the decline. For the white population, which saw life expectancy at its lowest level since 2002, COVID-19 contributed 68% of the decline.
While the disparity in life expectancy between non-Hispanic white and black populations was narrowing over the past three decades, the gap increased from 4.1 years in 2019 to 5.8 years in 2020. Meanwhile, the life expectancy gap between Hispanic and white populations narrowed.
“I really hope this is a wake-up call for America,” said Jennifer Karas Montez, a professor of sociology at Syracuse University and co-director of the Policy, Place and Population Health Lab. “We’re relying a lot on a medical improvement — on vaccines. And I don’t think that’s enough.”
Data released earlier this year shows that life expectancy has dropped by just one year, and the biggest decline has been seen in the black population. Those figures did not take into account the decline and winter growth, which 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 percent of deaths occurred in the second half.
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Karas Montez said it is important to consider the impact of COVID-19 on US life expectancy in the context of life expectancy trends before the pandemic.
He noted that life expectancy in the US has increased since the 1980s, but at a slower rate than in other high-income countries. Around 2010, life expectancy in the US stopped rising, and it began to decline around 2014.
“We were already at very high risk of not being able to withstand such exogenous shocks to the health of the population,” 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 before the pandemic because the long-term trajectory since 2010 has been a plateau or a decline.”
A study by Virginia Commonwealth University last month found that the coronavirus pandemic has widened the life expectancy gap between the US and 16 other high-income countries. The researchers found that this gap has increased from 3.05 years in 2018 to 4.69 years in 2020. This reduction in life expectancy over the past two years was 8.5 times the average reduction in peer countries.
“Even if we vaccinate 100% of the population, I think we will go back to a very precarious position in 2019 in terms of life expectancy,” said Karas Montez. “We have to strengthen our foundation here in terms of social, economic and health care infrastructure. We have to shore it up so that we can better survive something like this in the future, because it will happen again.”
Contribution: Adriana Rodriguez