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US life expectancy in 2020 biggest drop since WWII

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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 COVID-19 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-19 accounting for about 11% of those deaths.

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.

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A couple walks through a park at sunset in Kansas City, Mo on March 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, file)

The abrupt fall is “essentially catastrophic,” said Mark Hayward, a sociology professor at the University of Texas who studies changes in American mortality.

Killers other than COVID-19 played a role. Drug overdoses depressed life expectancy, especially for whites. 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, 10 months in 2019. Last year, the CDC said, it dropped to about 77 years, 4 months.

Other findings in the new CDC report:

Hispanic Americans have longer life expectancies than white or black Americans, but had the largest drop in 2020. The three-year drop was the largest since the CDC began tracking Latin America’s life expectancy 15 years ago.

Black people’s life expectancy fell by nearly three years to 71 years, 10 months. It hasn’t been this low since 2000.

-White life expectancy dropped by about 14 months to about 77 years, 7 months. That was the lowest life expectancy for that population since 2002.

—The role of COVID-19 varied by race and ethnicity. The coronavirus was responsible for 90% of the decline in life expectancy among Hispanics, 68% among whites and 59% among black Americans.

—Life expectancy dropped by nearly two years for men, but about a year for women, widening a long-standing gap. The CDC estimated life expectancy at 74 years, 6 months for boys versus 80 years, 2 months for girls.

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More than 80% of last year’s COVID deaths were people 65 and older, 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.

Therefore, last year’s drop was only half as great as the three-year drop between 1942 and 1943 when young soldiers died in World War II. And it was only a fraction of the decline between 1917 and 1918 as World War I and a Spanish flu pandemic devastated 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.

Too many people have already died from COVID-19 this year, as variants of the coronavirus spread among unvaccinated Americans — many of them younger adults, some experts said.

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“We can’t. We can’t go back to pre-pandemic” life expectancy in 2021, said Noreen Goldman, a Princeton University researcher.

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