U.S. Life Expectancy Plunged In 2020
In just the first six months of 2020, life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year, the federal government reported on Thursday.
The 2020 decrease is the largest drop since World War II and a measure of the consequences stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic.
Life expectancy, or the average number of years that a newborn is expected to live, is the most basic measure of the health of a population. Thursday’s figures give the first full picture of the pandemic’s effect on American expected life spans, which dropped from 78.8 years to 77.8 years in 2019.
The newest numbers also showed a deepening of racial and ethnic disparities.
Life expectancy of the black population declined by 2.7 years in the first half of 2020 after a 20-year increase. The gap between black and white Americans is now at six years, the widest since 1998.
“I knew it was going to be large, but when I saw those numbers, I was like ‘Oh my God,’ ” said Elizabeth Arias, the federal researcher who produced the report. “We haven’t seen a decline of that magnitude in decades.”
This expectancy drop is not likely to last long because virus deaths are easing as people are starting to get vaccinated. In 1918, when hundreds of thousands of Americans died from the flu pandemic, life expectancy declined 11.8 years from the previous year, down to 39 years, said Arias. Numbers fully rebounded the following year.
Researchers noted, however, that if such a rebound were to occur like in 1918, the social and economic effects of Covid-19 will still linger, as will disproportionate effects on people of color.
Dr. Mary T. Bassett, a former New York City health commissioner who is now a professor of health and human rights at Harvard, told The New York Times that unless the country better addressed inequality, “we may see U.S. life expectancy stagnate or decline for some time to come.”
Life expectancy in the U.S. started to lag behind other developed countries in the late 1980s. One theory is that growing economic disparities affected health.
Additionally, living conditions that caused Covid-19 rates to increase, like overcrowded housing and inadequate protections for low-wage workers, will only add to the trend.
Overall, the death rate for black Americans with Covid-19 was almost twice that for white Americans as of late January, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The death rate for Hispanics was 2.3 times higher than for white non-Hispanic Americans.
The 2.7-year drop for African-Americans from the months of January through June of last year was the largest decline, followed by a 1.9-year drop for Hispanic Americans and a 0.8-year drop for white Americans.
— Dr. Mary T. Bassett (@DrMaryTBassett) February 18, 2021