The life expectancy of Californians fell by three years during the pandemic, faster than the national average declined in 2020, according to a published medical investigation and federal health records.
The data raise questions about public health and environmental policies, health care access and lifestyle choices in the country’s most populous and wealthiest state compared to the rest of the country.
Californians’ life expectancy fell from 81.4 years in 2019 to 79.2 years in 2020 and 78.37 years in 2021, according to a retrospective analysis published last Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study noted that minorities in low-income areas were hit hardest.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the average national life expectancy fell by 1.5 years — from 78.8 in 2019 to 77.3 in 2020. The CDC has not released data for 2021.
A host of factors influence life expectancy — from prenatal care, genetics and birth weight; to nutrition, education and pollution; to drug use, stress and homicide rates, among other factors.
California enacted the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020 and enforced COVID-19 testing and mask requirements longer than most states. California also struggled with pollution from wildfires, social justice protests and a spike in shooting deaths.
“Typically, longevity is impacted by multiple known and unknown variables and tends to be correlational rather than causative,” said Thomas Plante, a California-based clinical psychologist and fellow at the American Psychological Association.
The Santa Clara University professor noted that the APA’s Stress in America studies and a December mental health advisory from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy have both warned of a “mental health tsunami going on for most people” emerging from lockdowns.
That includes spikes in suicides, alcohol and drug-related accidents, untreated illnesses, anxiety, depression, broken relationships and social isolation.
“Other major problems in our society that impact longevity such as income inequality, gun violence, lack of medical care, and mental health trouble may not improve over time and, thus, longevity may continue to decline. We’ll see,” Mr. Plante said.
Dr. Steven H. Woolf, one of four researchers who conducted the JAMA study, said California’s “massive loss of life expectancy” was caused largely by COVID-19 deaths and “to some extent” by an uptick in deaths from other causes like heart disease and diabetes.
“Many people were forced to delay or forego care, especially when doctors and hospitals were overwhelmed by surges,” said Dr. Woolf, a senior adviser at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine’s Center on Society and Health.
Some studies suggest lockdowns did little to relieve those surges.
In a July 2021 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers from the Rand Corp. and the University of Southern California found scant evidence that lockdowns prevented COVID deaths.
That study instead found a “positive association” between shelter-in-place orders and “excess deaths,” including suicides.
A disputed Johns Hopkins analysis reported in January that the first U.S. lockdowns in 2020 reduced COVID-19 mortality by only about 0.2%.
A study, published last Tuesday in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that COVID-19 became the third-leading cause of death for Americans in 2020 and 2021. The first and second were heart disease and cancer; the fourth and fifth were accidental deaths and strokes.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In an email, the California Department of Public Health said it does not comment on studies that do not include its staff.
According to Thursday’s study of census tract-level income and mortality data, 1,988,606 Californians died between 2015 and 2021, including 654,887 in 2020 and 2021.
Before the pandemic, the study found life expectancy improving in California, varying year-over-year by less than 0.2 years between 2015 and 2019.
During the pandemic, it found the life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest Californians grew from 11.52 years in 2019 to 14.67 years in 2020 and 15.51 years in 2021.
From 2019 to 2021, life expectancy declined by 5.74 years among the state’s Hispanics and 3.84 years among the non-Hispanic Black population, compared to just 1.9 years among the non-Hispanic white population.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University, said the “explosion” of COVID-19 deaths, delayed medical care for non-COVID-19 patients and economic shutdowns had “a disproportionate effect” on low-income Americans.
“These are sobering statistics. COVID has reversed a longstanding trend of increasing life expectancy. It is a profound measure of the impact the COVID pandemic has had on our society,” Dr. Schaffner said.
According to experts, it may be impossible to know fully what caused California’s big drop in life expectancy.
“The policies in California drove high-risk behavior underground. Their hospitals were crushed with COVID despite the policies that were in force,” said Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.