- The life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by nearly 2 years in 2020 compared to 2019.
- People of color saw a higher drop in life expectancy.
- Compared to 16 peer countries, the U.S. has an almost 5-year lower life expectancy.
Extraordinary measures were taken since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March of 2020, yet new research finds during the first year of the pandemic, enough people died that the nation’s life expectancy significantly declined.
Scientists calculated U.S. life expectancy based on official death counts and discovered that life expectancy decreased by nearly two years on average.
“The resulting decrease in life expectancy was the largest since World War II and much larger than the losses experienced by other countries confronting the same virus,” Dr. Steven Woolf, professor of population health and health equity at Virginia Commonwealth University, who helped conduct the research, told Healthline.
“We remain stunned by the massive loss of life the United States experienced,” said Woolf. “Which vastly exceeded losses in other rich countries, and by the horrible consequences among people of color.”
The team found that in 2020 the life expectancy in the U.S. declined by 1.87 years compared to 2019. This drop was larger for Black and Hispanic communities.
Woolf and team calculated a decline of 3.70 years in Hispanic populations and just over three years in non-Hispanic Black populations between 2019 and 2020.
They also found that the life expectancy drop was far larger in the U.S. compared to 16 peer countries. They estimated that life expectancy was about 4.7 years lower in 2020 compared to the average of these peer countries.
According to Woolf, this comes after decades of deteriorating health status in the U.S. relative to peer countries and “persistent” health disparities among people of color that are the legacy of systemic racism and policies of exclusion.
“These systemic problems will persist and more excess deaths will occur unless the United States gets serious about addressing the root causes,” he said.
“We had previously estimated that the decrease in life expectancy in 2020 was historic and that Hispanic and Black Americans experienced massive losses,” said Woolf.
However, according to the analysis, the decrease in life expectancy in peer countries was only 0.58 years, with no country experiencing a decrease similar to that found in the U.S.
Researchers found U.S. social welfare spending is less equitable and less beneficial to children and families. The U.S. also lacks universal healthcare and offers weaker public health and safety protections.
According to the study authors, this contrasts with policies adopted by U.S. peers, which included Israel, Germany, and Taiwan.
Researchers found long-standing, racialized health inequities originating from systemic racism, segregation, and exclusionary policies played the strongest role in declining life expectancy for Black and Hispanic populations.
Peter Pitts, former FDA Associate Commissioner and president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, explained the implications of these data.
According to Pitts, there was also a failure in public health communication in reaching those most at risk for severe COVID-19.
“We talked a lot about why communities of color had higher rates of COVID-19 infections, and they’re all true – but we didn’t talk about the understanding of dealing with infections within those communities of color,” he said.
Better communication may have helped people understand their risk for disease.
“We didn’t take that next level of communication and say what ethnic groups are over-represented in at-risk groups?” he said.
Researchers analyzed public health data to find U.S. life expectancy declined precipitously between 2019 and 2020 – and affected minority populations most severely.
Experts say systemic racism and a lack of universal healthcare in the U.S. contributed to this decline.