The Pandemic Led To The Greatest Drop In U.S. Life Expectancy Since WWII, Examine Finds : Coronavirus Updates : NPR


Declining life expectancy in the US is due to the coronavirus pandemic. A new study says black and Hispanic people have been hit particularly hard. Robert F. Bukaty / AP Hide caption

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Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Declining life expectancy in the US is due to the coronavirus pandemic. A new study says black and Hispanic people have been hit particularly hard.

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A new study estimates that life expectancy in the US fell by nearly 2 years between 2018 and 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the declines were most pronounced among minority groups, including blacks and Hispanics.

In 2018, the average life expectancy in the United States was about 79 years (78.7). This dropped to about 77 years (76.9) by the end of 2020, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal.

“We haven’t seen a drop like this since World War II. It’s a terrible drop in life expectancy,” says Steven Woolf of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and author of the study published Wednesday. (The study is based on data from the National Center for Health Statistics and includes simulated estimates for 2020.)

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In addition to the more than 600,000 deaths in the United States directly from the coronavirus, other factors play a role in reduced life expectancy, including “health care disorders, disorders in dealing with chronic illnesses, and behavioral health crises that affect people with addictions or depression struggling, may not have “got the help they needed,” says Woolf.

Lack of access to health care and other pandemic-related disorders hit some Americans much harder than others. And it’s well documented that the death rate for black Americans was twice that of white Americans.

This is reflected in the new longevity estimates. “African Americans saw their life expectancy decrease by 3.3 years and Hispanic Americans saw their life expectancy decrease by 3.9 years,” notes Woolf.

“Those are massive numbers,” says Woolf, reflecting the systemic inequalities that emerged long before the pandemic.

“It’s impossible to look at these results and not reflect systemic racism in the United States,” Lesley Curtis, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, told NPR.

“This study further destroys the myth that the United States is the healthiest place in the world to live,” says Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (an NPR funder) in an email.

He says that before COVID-19, large differences in life expectancy were evident. “For example, life expectancy in Princeton, NJ – a predominantly white community – is 14 years higher than in Trenton, NJ, a predominantly black and Latin American city that is only 14 miles away,” says Besser.

Life expectancy in the US had been falling – albeit very slowly – in the years before the pandemic. And the US has lost ground compared to other wealthy countries, explains Magali Barbieri of the University of California, Berkeley, in an editorial that will be published in parallel with the new study.

The study estimates that the decline in life expectancy in a group of 16 comparison countries (including Austria, Finland, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom) was only 0.22 years (or about 1/5 of a year) compared to the almost two-year decline in the USA

“The US’s 2020 mortality disadvantage compared to other high-income democracies is neither new nor sudden,” writes Barbieri. It appears that the pandemic has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities in US society, she adds.

“The number of factors that play a role are income inequality, the social safety net, and racial inequality and access to health care,” says Duke’s Lesley Curtis.

What is the prognosis in the USA? “I think life expectancy will be better,” says Steven Woolf. However, the US is unlikely to be on its way to completely reversing the trend.

“The US has some of the best hospitals and some of the best scientists. But other countries are far better at providing quality medical care for their populations,” says Woolf. “We have huge gaps in supplying people who need them most, when they need them most.”