U.S. life expectancy declined by 1.5 years from 2019 to 2020, the largest one-year dip since World War II and the lowest level since 2003, according to new provisional federal data.
Life expectancy at birth for the overall population dropped from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported Wednesday. During the WWII era, life expectancy dropped 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943.
Deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic largely explain the dwindling life expectancy between 2019 and 2020, contributing to 74% of the decline, the report says.
More than 3.3 million Americans died last year, the highest ever recorded in U.S. history, with about 11% of those lives lost to COVID-19.
“The results are similar to the study we published late last month. They were horrific then and they are horrific now. The large decrease in life expectancy, the largest this country has seen since World War II, indicates that the U.S. experienced a huge loss of life in 2020,” said Steven Woolf, professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
About 11% of the life expectancy drop is due to deaths from accidents and unintentional injuries, including drug overdose deaths. Drug overdoses made up more than one-third of all unintentional injury deaths and caused a record-breaking high of more than 93,000 deaths in 2020, the NCHS reported last week.
Additionally, homicides contributed to 3.1% of the life expectancy decline, diabetes 2.5%, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis 2.3%.
“The decline in life expectancy would have been even greater were it not for the offsetting effects of decreases in mortality due to cancer (45.2%), chronic lower respiratory diseases (20.8%), heart disease (5.0%), suicide (4.6%), and certain conditions originating in the perinatal period (4.0%),” the researchers wrote in their report.
The report also found a widening disparity between the life expectancy for men and women, climbing to 5.7 years in 2020 from 5.1 years in 2019. Males saw a 1.8-year decline in life expectancy while females experienced a drop of 1.2 years in life expectancy.
The disparity between life expectancy for males and females had slimmed down to 4.8 years from 2000 to 2010, but began to gradually increase from 2010 to 2019.
The Hispanic community in the U.S. experienced the largest decline in life expectancy last year, although they have longer lifespans than non-Hispanic Black people or White people, the report found.
Among the Hispanic community, life expectancy declined three years, from 81.8 years in 2019 to 78.8 years in 2020. Hispanic males experienced the biggest drop in life expectancy last year with 3.7 years shaved off. COVID-19 accounted for 90% of the life expectancy drop for the Hispanic population, the researchers wrote.
Non-Hispanic Black people experienced the second-largest decline in life expectancy with 2.9 years. Life expectancy dipped to 71.8 years in 2020 from 74.7 years in 2019, which is also the lowest life expectancy for this population since 2000. More than half of the decline in life expectancy, 59%, for this group was attributed to COVID-19.
For non-Hispanic White people, the life expectancy decreased 1.2 years, from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.6 years in 2020, which is the lowest for this population since 2002, the report says. COVID-19 accounted for 68% of the life expectancy drop for this group.
“COVID is the major cause of these declines for all groups so it is not surprising that the two that exhibited highest COVID case rates, Hispanics and Blacks, are taking the greatest hit in reductions in life expectancy. Still, another cause associated with the pandemic ‘unintentional injuries’ contributed to the life expectancy drop,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“It is also notable that the greatest decline in Hispanic life expectancy occurred in the last half of 2020. This means that we might expect a continuation of this pattern through the first part of 2021,” Mr. Frey said.
The difference in life expectancy between non-Hispanic White people and Black people increased in 2020 to 5.8 years, up from 4.1 years in 2019. In the last three decades, this gap has been getting smaller, down from 7.1 years in 1993.
However, the gap in life expectancy between Hispanics and non-Hispanic White people narrowed from three years in 2019 to 1.2 years last year. The disparity in life expectancy between Hispanics and non-Hispanic Black people stayed around seven years last year and in 2019.
Life expectancy was improving in the U.S. for decades until it stalled for several years before reaching 78 years, 10 months in 2019 and dropping to about 77 years, four months in 2020, The Associated Press reported.
“I expect life expectancy to rebound eventually, perhaps in the next one to three years, but returning to pre-pandemic levels takes us back to a bad place,” Dr. Woolf said. “For the past decade, U.S. life expectancy has been largely flat or decreasing, while it has been climbing in other high-income countries. The health of Americans has been falling behind our peers for years, and this was a crisis even before we ever knew about COVID.”
The National Center for Health Statistics is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
*This article is based in part on wire service reports.