Life expectancy in the United States dropped by a year and a half in 2020.
he figures, contained in US federal data released yesterday, represent a continuation of a decline that was observed in the first half of last year as coronavirus ravaged the country.
The fall – the largest seen in a single year since World War II – reflects the pandemic’s sustained toll on Americans, particularly the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of colour.
Black Americans lost 2.9 years of life expectancy while Latinos, who have longer life expectancy than non-Hispanic blacks or whites, saw a drop of three years. There was a decrease of 1.2 years among white people.
“It’s horrific,” said Anne Case, a professor emeritus of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. “It’s not entirely unexpected given what we have already seen about mortality rates as the year went on, but that still doesn’t stop it from being just horrific, especially for non-Hispanic blacks and for Hispanics.”
The provisional data from the National Centre for Health Statistics (NCHS), a part of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that life expectancy at birth – one measure of the nation’s health – for the total population declined from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020.
Almost three-quarters of that decline is attributed to deaths from Covid-19, according to the report. The report did not include data for Asian Americans or other racial groups.
Lead author Elizabeth Arias, a health scientist at the National Centre for Health Statistics, said mortality tends to be fairly stable from year to year, which is why 2020 was “very unusual.”
“From 1943 till now, the changes in life expectancy annually have been very small,” she said.
The drop in life expectancy also reflects the pandemic’s broader impacts on health, including a record-high number of deaths from drug overdoses. In 2020, there were more than 93,000 overdose deaths – an increase largely driven by opioids, primarily illegal fentanyl, though deaths from methamphetamine and cocaine also rose.
According to the NCHS, an estimated 11pc of the decline in life expectancy is due to increases in deaths from accidents and unintentional injuries, and more than one-third of all unintentional injury deaths were drug overdoses.
“There are other festering problems going on here,” Case said. “The one that’s most obvious would be the drug overdose epidemic that continues to blaze.”
Other contributing causes of death include homicide, diabetes, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, the report noted. All told, the numbers tell a “pretty dark story about what’s happening in the US,” Case added.
Life expectancy for the general population in 2020 was the lowest it has been since 2003, according to the report. “That’s pretty sobering,” said Noreen Goldman, a professor at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, who has published research on US life expectancy during the pandemic.