Health and Science

U.S. life expectancy dropped by 1.5 years in 2020, biggest drop since WWII

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Key Points
  • The CDC's National Center for Health Statistics showed that life expectancy dropped from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020.
  • Hispanic Americans experienced the largest decline in life expectancies in 2020, followed by Black Americans.
  • Covid deaths accounted for nearly 75% of the decline.
A woman looks at the "Naming the Lost Memorials," as the U.S. deaths from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are expected to surpass 600,000, at The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., June 10, 2021.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

The Covid-19 pandemic drove average life expectancies in the U.S. down by about 18 months last year, marking the largest annual decline since World War II, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Americans are now expected to live an average of 77.3 years, down from 78.8 years in 2019, according the report released Wednesday by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. Hispanics saw the biggest drop in life expectancy last year, followed by Black Americans.

"The decline in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 can primarily be attributed to deaths from the pandemic," the report reads. Covid deaths accounted for nearly 75% of the decline. More than 609,000 Americans have died in the pandemic, including about 375,000 last year, according to the CDC.

About 11% of the decline stems from a rise in deaths from accidents or unintentional injuries. Drug overdose deaths, which spiked 30% during the pandemic, made up about one-third of unintentional injuries last year.

Life expectancy for American males declined 1.8 years from 2019 to 2020, while life expectancy for American women dropped by 1.2 years from 2019.

"The difference in life expectancy between the sexes was 5.7 years in 2020, increasing from 5.1 in 2019,
the report said.

Hispanic Americans usually have a longer life expectancy than non-Hispanic Black or white people, but life expectancy for Hispanics declined more than any other ethnic group last year, according to the report. Life expectancy among all Hispanics declined by three years from 81.8 years in 2019 to 78.8 years in 2020. Hispanic males suffered a drop of 3.7 years in 2020.

"Covid-19 was responsible for 90% of the decline in life expectancy for the Hispanic population," the report said.

The narrowing of the life expectancy gap between white and Hispanic populations "is a stark indicator of worsening health and mortality outcomes for a population that paradoxically has been, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, able to defy expectations consistent with its disadvantaged socioeconomic profile," the report said.

"They were at greater risk of getting infected," Elizabeth Arias, the lead author of the report said in an interview. "People working in the service sector were not able to telework."

Hispanic and Black Americans are largely overrepresented in jobs that were deemed essential during pandemic lockdowns, exposing them to the virus more than office employees who could work from home.

"These groups were getting infected and that has a lot to do with their status in society," Arias said.

Black Americans experienced the second-largest decline in life expectancy with a drop of almost three years from 74.7 years in 2019 to 71.8 years in 2020, the lowest since 2000, according to the report. Covid was responsible for 59% of the drop in life expectancy among Black people.

Among white Americans, life expectancy fell 1.2 years in 2020 from 78.8 years in 2020 to 77.6 years, the lowest since 2002. Covid-19 was responsible for 68% of the drop among whites last year.

Covid-19 was the third-leading cause of death last year, and "overall death rates were highest among non-Hispanic Black persons and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native persons," the CDC said in its provisional mortality report in April.

Life expectancy for Black Americans has consistently trailed whites, but the last time the gap in life expectancy between Black and white people was this large was in 1999, according to the report.

"You would expect that an infectious disease or pandemic would affect everybody ... but it affected populations that are distinguished by race and ethnicity very differently," Arias said.

Other factors that contributed to the decline in life expectancy in 2020 include homicides, which accounted for at 3% of the decline, as well as diabetes and chronic liver disease at 2.5% and 2.3%, respectively.