Life expectancy in the US plunged into the biggest drop in a year since World War II last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday, widening the gap in lifespan between the US and comparable countries.
Deaths from Covid-19 and drug overdoses have fueled the decline — negating all the improvements the country has made in reducing deaths from cancer and chronic lower respiratory tract disease — leading to a 1 drop. 5 years and causing life expectancy at birth to fall to 77.3 years. (Life expectancy at birth refers to how long a person born in the year studied — in this case, 2020 — is expected to live.)
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The drop, reported by preliminary models last month, highlights the country’s system of ill health, experts said.
“What happened in the US didn’t happen in other comparable countries, despite Covid-19 being a global pandemic,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Deaths from Covid-19 accounted for nearly 75 percent of the decline in life expectancy on average. But the disease was responsible for 90 percent of the decline in life expectancy among Hispanic Americans, compared with 68 percent in white Americans and nearly 60 percent in black Americans.
The life expectancy benefit among Hispanics compared to white Americans has more than halved – from 3 years in 2019 to 1.2 years in 2020, bringing the current life expectancy of Hispanics to 78.8 years. The life expectancy of black Americans fell by nearly 3 years to 71.8 years, the youngest age for the population since 2000; the decline was nearly 2.5 times the decline among white Americans, whose life expectancy fell to 77.6 years. Data were not available for other races and ethnicities.
The specific impact the pandemic had on Hispanic and Black Americans “reflects the pre-pandemic inequalities related to unequal access to health care and racial and ethnic inequalities in health in general, which are largely related to have socioeconomic disadvantages,” said Irma Elo, chair of the department of sociology and research associate at the Population Aging Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The people who have suffered disproportionately from this pandemic were the same people who were placed in positions where they were more likely to be exposed because of their jobs,” Elo said.
The report also pointed to an increase in homicides and diabetes, which together accounted for about 5.5 percent of the decline in life expectancy. Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis — which indicate an increase in alcohol abuse, Woolf said — accounted for nearly 2.5 percent of the decline.
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It also highlighted the impact of the opioid epidemic.
The researchers estimate that an increase in deaths from accidents or accidental injuries — a third of which were drug overdoses — accounted for 11 percent of the decline in life expectancy. Last week, the CDC reported a record number of more than 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020, an increase of nearly 30 percent from 2019. Overdoses rose about 4 percent from 2018 to 2019.
“We already saw a worrying trend before the pandemic and predicted that the stress and depression caused by job loss, home insecurity and the pandemic itself would exacerbate drug addiction problems. This report shows that this was indeed the case,” Woolf said, adding that the pandemic also disrupted access to addiction treatment, psychological help, and life-saving drugs, such as naloxone distributors.
However, he stressed that a system of ill health is the underlying force that is driving life expectancy down in the US while it is rising in comparable countries.
“People may think that with Covid-19 and opioids off the table we would be in good shape, but the reality is very different,” Woolf said.
Still, it is necessary for the US to control Covid-19, which is responsible for the bulk of the decline in life expectancy, in order to close racial inequalities in life expectancy.
“We’ll see this continue if people don’t get vaccinated,” Elo said. “Not getting vaccinated puts everyone at risk, not just the unvaccinated person, and creates opportunities for the virus to mutate, which could make the vaccines we have less effective.”
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