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%).
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.©2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.