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U.S. life expectancy fell by 1.5 years in 2020, largest drop since World War II


U.S. life expectancy fell by a year and a half in 2020, the largest one-year decline since World War II, according to report released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The decrease for both Black Americans and Latino Americans was even greater: three years.

Close to 74% of the overall life expectancy decline was due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 3.3 million Americans died last year, far more than any other year in U.S. history, with COVID-19 accounting for about 11% of those deaths.

Black life expectancy has not fallen so much in one year since the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression. Health officials have not logged Latino life expectancy for nearly as long, but the 2020 decline was the largest recorded one-year drop in the 15 years it has been tracked.

The abrupt fall is “basically catastrophic,” said Mark Hayward, a University of Texas sociology professor who studies changes in U.S. mortality.

Killers other than COVID-19 played a role. Drug overdoses pushed life expectancy down, particularly for whites. And rising homicides were a small but significant reason for the decline for Black Americans, said Elizabeth Arias, a demographer with the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and the report’s lead author.

Other problems affected Black and Latino people, including lack of access to quality healthcare, more crowded living conditions, and a greater share of the population in lower-paying jobs that required them to keep working when the pandemic was at its worst, experts said.

Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live. It’s an important statistical snapshot of a country’s health that can be influenced both by sustained trends such as obesity as well as more temporary threats like pandemics or war that might not endanger those newborns in their lifetimes.

For decades, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing. But that trend stalled in 2015 before hitting 78 years, 10 months, in 2019. Last year, the CDC said, it dropped to about 77 years, 4 months.

Other findings in the new CDC report:

• Black life expectancy dropped to 71 years, 10 months. It has not been that low since 2000.

• White life expectancy fell by roughly 14 months to about 77 years, 7 months. That was the lowest life expectancy for that population since 2002.

• COVID-19’s role varied by race and ethnicity. The pandemic was responsible for 90% of the decline in life expectancy among Latinos, 68% among white people and 59% among Black Americans.

• Life expectancy fell nearly two years for men, but about one year for women, widening a long-standing gap. The CDC estimated life expectancy of 74 years, 6 months, for boys versus 80 years, 2 months, for girls.

More than 80% of last year’s COVID-19 deaths were people 65 and older, CDC data show. That reduced the pandemic’s toll on life expectancy at birth, since it is swayed more by deaths of younger adults and children than those among seniors.

That’s why last year’s decline was just half as much as the three-year drop between 1942 and 1943, when young soldiers were dying in World War II. And it was just a fraction of the drop between 1917 and 1918, when World War I and a flu pandemic devastated younger generations.

Life expectancy bounced back after those drops, and experts believe it will this time too. But some said it could take years.

Too many people have already died from COVID-19 this year, while coronavirus variants are spreading among unvaccinated Americans — many of them younger adults, some experts said.

“We can’t. In 2021, we can’t get back to pre-pandemic” life expectancy, said Noreen Goldman, a Princeton University researcher.




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