Average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped for a second straight year from 2020 to 2021, according to new provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the COVID-19 pandemic once again playing an outsize role in the decline.
Based on “nearly final” data, a report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics shows that life expectancy at birth in the U.S. fell to its lowest level since 1996 last year, dropping from 77.0 years in 2020 to 76.1 years.
The latest figures highlight a disturbing downward trend tied to the pandemic: Since 2019, U.S. life expectancy has fallen by more than 3%, with deaths from COVID-19 tied to nearly 74% of the decline from 2019 to 2020 and to nearly half of the drop from 2020 to 2021.
Researchers attributed increased fatalities from unintentional injuries, or accidents, to 16% of the decline in life expectancy from 2020 to 2021, with CDC officials noting in a release that drug overdoses account for roughly half of deaths from unintentional injury. The most recent provisional data reported by the National Center for Health Statistics shows that more than 104,500 overdose deaths have been reported over the 12-month period ending this past March.
Other causes of death contributing to the decline in life expectancy last year, according to the report, include increases in mortality tied to heart disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and suicide.
“The decline in life expectancy would have been even greater were it not for the offsetting effects of decreases in mortality” due to conditions such as influenza and pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases and Alzheimer’s disease, according to the report.
The gap in life expectancy between women and men widened in 2021 to 5.9 years compared with 5.7 years in 2020, according to the study, marking the largest gap between the genders since six years in 1996. Life expectancy at birth among males was 73.2 years in 2021, a one-year decline from 2020, while female life expectancy saw a 0.8-year decline to 79.1.
Among racial and ethnic groups, American Indian or Alaska Native people experienced the biggest decline in life expectancy, seeing a drop of 1.9 years from 67.1 in 2020 to 65.2 in 2021. From 2019 to 2021, life expectancy among the American Indian or Alaska Native population has declined by 6.6 years, according to the study.
The second-biggest decrease in life expectancy by race and ethnicity from 2020 to 2021 occurred among the white population, which saw a one-year decline from 77.4 years to 76.4 years. Life expectancy among Black individuals saw a 0.7-year drop from 71.5 years in 2020 to 70.8 years in 2021, while the Asian population experienced the smallest drop in life expectancy, from 83.6 years to 83.5. The Hispanic population experienced a 0.2-year decline in life expectancy, from 77.9 years in 2020 to 77.7 years in 2021.
The data appears to point to a narrowing or shift in the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color. While whites in the U.S. experienced a drop of 1.4 years in life expectancy from 2019 to 2020, for example, the Black population saw a drop of more than three years and life expectancy for the Hispanic population dropped by four years.
In 2021, though, the drop among whites was greater than the drops in life expectancy for both Blacks and Hispanics.
“This may have something to do with where the pandemic was most prevalent during 2021,” says Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the National Center for Health Statistics.
Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health at Virginia Commonwealth University and director emeritus of the school’s Center on Society and Health, says such shifts may involve differences in attitudes between white Americans and minority groups toward pandemic safety precautions such as social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccinations.
Woolf co-authored a separate study published earlier this year that also found white Americans had larger losses in life expectancy between 2020 and 2021 than the Black or Hispanic populations, after the reverse had played out between 2019 and 2020.
Woolf says there is evidence that Black and Hispanic communities, despite early concerns about vaccine hesitancy, have more readily sought out vaccinations and been more likely to wear masks and take other precautionary measures, in part in response to the deaths and illnesses those populations incurred from COVID-19 in 2020.
Woolf says in areas of the country where there has been more skepticism about the science around COVID-19 and vaccines, a large portion of those populations are predominantly white, which he contends has led to a greater loss of life within those populations than otherwise would have been expected.
“Based on the actual epidemiology of this disease as we saw during 2020, the Hispanic and Black populations are at … higher risk of getting infected, developing complications, getting hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 than the white population,” Woolf says. “So, the epidemiology would not be able to explain why white people are dying at higher rates except for the fact that the protective measures that are available may not be as popular in the white population.”
Woolf’s study also showed how the U.S. fared poorly in terms of life expectancy compared with other peer countries from 2019 to 2021, and a separate New York Times analysis published in early February showed that America had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita between the onset of the pandemic and Jan. 31 of this year when compared with a group of other high-income countries. From the beginning of the omicron variant wave in December 2021 through January, the U.S. was the only wealthy nation to post a death rate well above 20 deaths per 100,000, according to the Times analysis.
“During 2021 when this additional decrease in life expectancy occurred, other countries recovered much of their losses and some actually achieved a net increase in life expectancy,” Woolf says. “So the rest of the industrialized world has been getting back to normal during the year when the U.S. life expectancy was continuing to fall further.
“This is clearly an indication of something very critically wrong with how the U.S. handled the pandemic.”