The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound effect on life expectancy in the U.S., according to new research. And the effect was especially significant for Black and Hispanic people.
For the study, published this week in the BMJ, researchers compared data for life expectancy for white, Black, and Hispanic people between 2010 and 2018 to data during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also compared those findings to data from 16 other “peer” countries, including the U.K., Denmark, France, Israel, and South Korea.
The researchers found that average life expectancy dropped about 1.8 years in the U.S. between 2018 and 2020, from an average of 78.7 years to 76.9 years. And life expectancy dropped in the U.S. more than it did for the other countries in the study as well. Back in 2010, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 1.9 years less than it was in the peer countries. By 2018, that gap increased to about 3 years. But between 2018 and 2020, it increased to a whopping 4.7 years.
Their results also showed that from 2010 to 2018, life expectancy for white people in the U.S. was higher than for Black people. In 2010, white people had an average life expectancy of about 78.8 years compared to 74.8 for Black people. And in 2018, those numbers were still very similar. However, between 2018 and 2020 the gap widened even further—and life expectancy for Black dropped from 71.5 in 2018 to 67.7 in 2020 (its lowest point since 1998, the authors say). Black women’s life expectancy went from 78 in 2018 to 75.3 in 2020. That’s compared to white women, who had a life expectancy of 81 in 2018 and 80 in 2020.
Hispanic people, who for decades have had a higher life expectancy than white people, saw that advantage nearly disappear in 2020, according to the study data. In 2010, the average life expectancy for Hispanic people was 81.7 years, which decreased to about 78 years in 2020.
These findings underscore the dramatic effect of the pandemic in the U.S.—especially among Black and Hispanic people who have experienced a disproportionate share of the effects of COVID-19. This drop in life expectancy likely reflects the direct effects of the virus as well as indirect health consequences, such as those due to overwhelmed medical systems, delayed doctor’s appointments, and the exacerbation of long-running issues in society (such as homelessness, food insecurity, inadequate health care, and job loss).
“The pandemic will have short- and long-term effects on the social determinants of health, changing living conditions in many communities, and altering life course trajectories across age groups,” the authors write. Fully understanding these consequences—and seeing the full impact of the pandemic—will require research for years to come.