The United States saw the largest one-year drop in life expectancy since World War II during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Hispanic and Black populations saw the largest declines, according to government data released Wednesday. Life expectancy at birth declined by 1.5 years in 2020 to 77.3 – the lowest level since 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics found. Between 1942 and 1943, during the Second World War, life expectancy in the U.S. declined 2.9 years. “The numbers are devastating,” said Chantel Martin, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “The declines that we see, particularly among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black population, are massive.” Life expectancy declined by:
- 3 years for the Hispanic population, to 78.8 years
- 2.9 years for the non-Hispanic Black population, to 71.8 years
- 1.2 years for the non-Hispanic white population, to 77.6 years
For the Hispanic population, 68% of all COVID-19 deaths occurred in the second half of the year. For the white population, 71% of deaths were in the second half.
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Karas Montez said it’s important to consider the effect of COVID-19 on U.S. life expectancy in the context of life expectancy trends before the pandemic.
Life expectancy has increased in the U.S. since the 1980s but at a slower rate than in other high-income countries, she said. Around 2010, life expectancy in the U.S. stopped increasing, and it started declining around 2014.
“We were already pretty high-risk as a nation of not being able to withstand this kind of exogenous shock to population health,” Karas Montez said. “So what does rebounding from this virus look like? I can’t imagine a scenario where we’re going to rebound and be better than we were before the pandemic because the long-term trajectory, since 2010, has been a plateau or decline.”
A study last month from Virginia Commonwealth University found the coronavirus pandemic widened the life expectancy gap between the U.S. and 16 other high-income countries. Researchers found the gap increased from 3.05 years in 2018 to 4.69 years in 2020. This decrease in life expectancy over the past two years was 8.5 times the average decrease in peer countries.
“Even if we were to vaccinate 100% of the population, I think we would go back to the very precarious situation we were in, in 2019 in terms of life expectancy,” Karas Montez said. “We have got to shore up our foundation here in terms of the social, economic and health care infrastructure. We have got to shore that up so that we can better withstand something like this in the future, because it will happen again.”
Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez