The coronavirus pandemic was largely responsible for shaving a year and a half from the life expectancy of Americans in 2020, the steepest drop in the United States since World War II, according to federal statistics released on Wednesday.
An American child born today, if they hypothetically lived their entire life under the conditions of 2020, would be expected to live 77.3 years, down from 78.8 in 2019. It’s the lowest life expectancy since 2003, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the agency that released the figures and a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The difficult year also deepened racial and ethnic disparities in life expectancy, with Black and Hispanic Americans losing nearly two more years than white Americans. Life expectancy for Hispanic Americans dropped to 78.8 from 81.8, while the numbers for Black Americans dropped to 71.8 from 74.7. Non-Hispanic white Americans saw their life expectancy drop to 77.6 from 78.8.
Measuring life expectancy is not intended to precisely predict actual life spans; rather, it’s a measure of a population’s health, revealing either society-wide distress or advancement. The sheer magnitude of the drop in 2020 has left researchers reeling as it wiped away decades of progress.
In recent decades, life expectancy had steadily risen in the United States until 2014, when an opioid epidemic took hold and caused the kind of decline rarely seen in developed countries. The decline had flattened in 2018 and 2019.
The pandemic also appears to have affected the opioid crisis. More than 40 states have recorded increases in opioid-related deaths since the pandemic began, according to the American Medical Association.
The precipitous drop in 2020 caused largely by Covid-19 is not likely to be permanent. In 1918, the flu pandemic wiped 11.8 years from Americans’ life expectancy, but the number fully rebounded the following year.
But even if deaths from Covid-19 fall off, the economic and social effects will linger, especially among racial groups that were disproportionately affected, researchers have noted.
Though there have long been racial and ethnic disparities in life expectancy, the gaps had been narrowing for decades. In 1993, white Americans were expected to live 7.1 years longer than Black Americans, but the gap had been winnowed to 4.1 years in 2019.
Covid-19 did away much of that progress: White Americans are now expected to live 5.8 years longer.
As before, there remains a gender gap: Women in the United States were expected to live 80.2 years in the new figures, down from 81.4 in 2019, while men were expected to live 74.5 years, down from 76.3.
While the 1.5-year decline was caused mostly by Covid-19, making up 74 percent of the negative contribution, there were also smaller rises in unintentional injuries, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, homicide and diabetes.
As a slight silver lining, mortality dropped as related to cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, heart disease, suicide and certain conditions originating in the perinatal period.