COVID Pandemic Fuels a Drop in US Life Expectancy

Ralph Ellis

June 25, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Average U.S. life expectancy dropped by almost two years from 2018 to 2020, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic. Minorities experienced a decline several times that of white Americans, according to a new study published in The BMJ.

For all races, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped 1.87 years, from 78.74 years in 2018 to 76.87 years in 2020, the study said.

"We have not seen a decrease like this since World War II. It's a horrific decrease in life expectancy," Steven Woolf, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and an author of the study, told NPR. "These are massive numbers."

Besides the 600,000 U.S. deaths directly related to COVID-19, the pandemic contributed to other deaths by disrupting health care and isolating people, Woolf said.

Broken down by race, the declines in life expectancy were two to three times greater for minorities, the study said. The declines were 1.4 years for white Americans, 3.25 years for Black Americans, and 3.9 years for Hispanic Americans.

The root cause of the different reductions in life expectancy was systematic racism, the study said.

"Extensive research has shown that systems of power in the US structure opportunity and assign value in ways that unfairly disadvantage Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous populations, and unfairly advantage White people," the study said.

The study found that Americans are dying at faster rates than residents of "peer nations" -- high-income democracies.

Six nations (Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, and Taiwan) recorded increases in life expectancy from 2018 to 2020. Ten other nations recorded life expectancy decreases, but much smaller than the 1.87 years recorded by the United States.

U.S. life expectancy trailed many other nations even before the pandemic. A companion article to the study noted that in 2019 the World Health Organization ranked U.S. men 41st in the world and U.S. women 42nd in life expectancy -- about the same as Peru, Colombia, Chile, Croatia, and Thailand.

Woolf, the study author, said he thinks U.S. life expectancy will rebound -- to a degree.

"The U.S. has some of the best hospitals and some of the greatest scientists. But other countries do far better in getting quality medical care to their population," Woolf said. "We have big gaps in getting care to people who need it most, when they need it most."

Sources

BMJ: "Effect of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 on life expectancy across populations in the USA and other high-income countries: simulations of provisional mortality data." "The pandemic has magnified pre-existing vulnerabilities in US society."

NPR: "The Pandemic Led To The Biggest Drop In U.S. Life Expectancy Since WWII, Study Finds."

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