Life expectancy in the US has fallen by a year and a half in 2020, the biggest drop in a year since World War II, public health officials said Wednesday. The decline for both black Americans and Hispanics was even worse: three years.
The decline described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is primarily due to the pandemic, which health officials say accounts for nearly 74% of the overall decline in life expectancy. Last year, more than 3.3 million Americans died, far more than any other year in US history, with Covid being responsible for about 11% of those deaths.
The findings come as officials across the country are weighing the possibility of reintroducing some of the tougher efforts to contain the virus, including wearing universal masks and vaccine work. The province of Los Angeles recently reinstated guidelines for indoor masks.
Since the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, the life expectancy of black people in a year has not fallen that much. Health officials haven’t tracked Hispanic life expectancy for nearly as long, but the 2020 drop was the largest recorded drop in a year.
The abrupt drop is “essentially catastrophic,” said Mark Hayward, a sociology professor at the University of Texas who studies changes in U.S. mortality.
Killers other than Covid played a role. Drug overdoses depressed life expectancy, especially for white people. And the rising homicide rate was a small but important reason for the decline for black Americans, said Elizabeth Arias, the report’s lead author.
Other problems hit black and Hispanic people, including lack of access to quality health care, busier living conditions and a higher proportion of the population in lower-paying jobs forcing them to continue working when the pandemic was at its worst, experts said.
Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year could expect to live. It’s an important statistical snapshot of a country’s health that can be affected by ongoing trends like obesity as well as more temporary threats like pandemics or war that may not endanger these newborns in their lifetime.
Life expectancy in the US has been rising for decades. But that trend stalled for several years in 2015, before reaching 78 years and 10 months in 2019. Last year, the CDC said, it dropped to about 77 years and four months.
More than 80% of Covid deaths last year were in people over the age of 65, data from the CDC shows.
That effectively reduced the pandemic’s toll on life expectancy at birth, which is more affected by the deaths of younger adults and children than seniors.
That’s why the drop last year was only half the drop in three years between 1942 and 1943, when young soldiers died in the war. And it was only a fraction of the decline between 1917 and 1918, when the first war and a Spanish flu pandemic ravaged the younger generations.
Life expectancy bounced back after those declines, and experts believe it will this time around as well. But some said it could take years.