Life expectancy declined 1.5 years in the United States in 2020 and by twice that much for Black and Hispanic people, largely due to the surge in deaths from COVID-19, federal health officials said Wednesday.
The one-year drop was the largest since 1943, amid the rising casualties of World War II, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Grim statements by any measure, though demographics experts caution that the term life expectancy does not mean quite what it sounds like — especially in the context of a war or pandemic.
The decline in 2020 — to 77.3 years from 78.8 the year before — is largely a transient phenomenon, with no real bearing on the lifespan of those who survived the pandemic. The official name of the calculation is “life expectancy at birth,” meaning it is an estimate of average lifespan for a hypothetical cohort of people born in the same year, if subject to the death rates that occurred in 2020.
With the continued deployment of vaccines that (for now) prevent serious cases of COVID-19, the life-expectancy figure for 2021 is likely to increase, said Samuel H. Preston, a demographer and professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. But a full recovery is unlikely until 2022, given the number of COVID-19 deaths this year.
“Life expectancy will bounce back,” said Preston, who was not involved in the new report but has measured excess deaths due to the coronavirus.
Still, the new report presents a stark illustration of the pandemic’s impact.
Deaths from COVID-19 were responsible for 74% of the decline in life expectancy, according to the health statistics agency, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other factors included deaths from unintentional injuries such as drug overdoses, accounting for 11% of the decline. The number of overdose deaths in 2020 topped 93,000, an all-time high, the agency said.
Homicide deaths also contributed to the trend, responsible for 3.1% of the drop in life expectancy, along with diabetes (2.5%) and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (2.3%).