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Life expectancy fell by 1.5 years in 2020, mostly due to COVID-19

Tom Avril, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

The drop in life expectancy struck both males and females, though women retained their longtime edge in longevity, estimated to outlast men by at least five years, on average.

The sharp declines in lifespan for Black and Hispanic people reflected the more severe impact of COVID-19 on people of color.

Life expectancy for Hispanic people dropped by three years, from 81.8 in 2019 to 78.8 in 2020, with the pandemic accounting for 90% of the decline.

For Black people, life expectancy fell by 2.9 years, from 74.7 to 71.8, with COVID-19 blamed for 59% of the decrease.

Preston, the Penn researcher, has measured the impact of the coronavirus in a different way, by calculating the number of excess deaths — the gap between actual and expected deaths — working with colleagues at Penn, Boston University, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In the journal PLOS Medicine, the group estimated that by the end of December, the pandemic had contributed to the deaths of more than 440,000 people in the United States. That total included about 70,000 people who were not recorded in official COVID-19 death counts, either because they had been misclassified as having died of other causes or because they died of COVID-related issues, such as delaying medical treatment for another condition due to fear of infection.

 

In yet another take, Pew Research Center has calculated that on average, people who died of COVID-19 in 2020 lost 14 years of life.

The numbers for 2021 promise to be better, given current trends, Preston said.

If all goes well, life expectancy would rebound at least as well as it did after the sharp drop amid World War II. The official figure declined by 2.9 years in just one year, from 66.2 in 1942 to 63.3 in 1943, then climbed back to 65.2 the year after.

But in 2021, with the emergence of new virus variants and the reluctance by many to get vaccinated, just how much better life expectancy will be is a moving target.

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