As expected, the first year of the covid-19 pandemic has lowered the collective life expectancy of Americans. Researchers from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that life expectancy at birth dropped 1.5 years from 2019 to 2020, with most of the decline attributed to the pandemic. The drop is the sharpest seen since the World War II era and was even more significant for certain groups, including Black and Hispanic Americans.
Life expectancy at birth is an estimate of how long the average person born in that specific year would be expected to live. Though it’s most relevant for these individuals, life expectancy is calculated by looking at current trends in mortality rates across different ages, making it a decent barometer for a country’s overall health.
Things already weren’t great for the U.S. in that regard, even before the pandemic. Between 2015 and 2018, the country experienced an annual decline in life expectancy, with the drop led by increasing trends in preventable deaths from drug overdoses and other major causes that predominantly affect young adults and middle-aged Americans. It did slightly rise in 2019, but other countries had continued to experience gains in life expectancy the entire time. Other research has suggested that the U.S. has been an outlier in life expectancy for decades, performing worse than its peers since the 1990s, despite spending more on health care.
Whatever improvements happened in 2019, they’ve now been wiped away by the pandemic. In its latest surveillance report, based on “nearly final” mortality data, researchers from the National Centre for Health Statistics calculated that life expectancy in 2020 was only 77.3 years, a drop of 1.5 years from 2019’s figure of 78.8 years and the lowest number since 2003. It’s also the largest year-to-year drop seen since 1942-1943, during the middle of World War II, which saw a drop of 2.9 years, according to NPR.
“Mortality due to covid-19 had, by far, the single greatest effect on the decline in life expectancy at birth between 2019 and 2020,” the authors of the new report wrote. In 2020, the viral illness was the third leading cause of death in the U.S., killing at least (but likely more) 345,000 Americans. As of July 2021, the official U.S. death toll from the coronavirus is about 606,000.
This effect wasn’t evenly felt among all Americans. While about 74% of the overall decline in life expectancy was attributed to the pandemic, the researchers said, it jumped to 90% for Hispanics, who also saw the sharpest drop in life expectancy among any racial and ethnic group, from 81.8 to 78.8 years. Black Americans already had the lowest life expectancy among these groups, at 74.7 years in 2019, but experienced a drop to 71.8 years in 2020 (unlike Hispanics, though, about 60% of this decline was attributed to the pandemic).
Not all of the added drop in life expectancy came directly from the pandemic. Last year also saw more than 93,000 deaths tied to drug overdoses — the highest annual toll yet — which accounted for the bulk of deaths attributed to unintentional injuries. But a portion of these overdose deaths were likely fuelled in part by the pandemic’s effect on society and employment. Conversely, the pandemic may have had somewhat of a moderating effect on other causes of deaths, according to the report, such as cancer and heart disease (whether cancer deaths may eventually rise back up, due to a decline in screening and cancer-related medical visits last year, remains to be seen).
While the rapid deployment of covid-19 vaccines has prevented many American deaths in 2021, the pandemic will surely still have a devastating impact on life expectancy again this year. The virus is certain to be the third leading cause of death for two years straight, with more than 250,000 Americans having died in 2021 so far and hundreds continuing to die daily.