U.S. life expectancy in 2020 saw biggest drop since World War II

Drop in overall life expectancy attributed to “mishandling” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Average life expectancy in the U.S. decreased by an estimated 1.87 years between 2018 and 2020, a new study finds, the largest decrease since 1943—when the nation was fighting World War II—and more than eight times that of the average drop in peer high-income nations.

The study’s results were even grimmer for Black and Hispanic Americans. It found that average life expectancy for those groups decreased by 3.88 and 3.25 years, respectively, compared to 1.36 years for non-Hispanic Whites.

The authors used data from the National Center for Health Statistics to estimate changes in life expectancy from 2010 to 2018 and during the COVID-19 pandemic across population groups in the U.S., and to compare U.S. outcomes to those of 16 other industrialized nations.

They found that overall life expectancy in the U.S. in 2020 was an estimated 76.87 years, down from 78.74 years in 2018, a decrease of 2.4%. By comparison, life expectancy in the 16 other industrialized nations in the study fell from 81.78 to 81.56, a drop of .22 years, or .27%. As a result the gap in life expectancy, which had been 3 years in 2018, rose to 4.7 years in 2020.

The authors note that their findings were not entirely unexpected in light of what was already known about the impact of the COVID-19. The U.S. had the most COVID-related deaths in the world, and among the highest per-capita mortality rates. Moreover, gains in American life expectancy have lagged behind peer countries since the 1980s, and U.S. life expectancy dropped by 0.3 years from 2014 to 2017, further widening its mortality gap with peer nations.

In addition, they say, the disproportionate decrease in life expectancy among Black Americans undid previous progress in reducing the gap with White Americans. After decreasing from 4.02 to 3.5 years between 2010 and 2014, it rose to 3.92 years in 2018, before accelerating to 5.8 years in 2020.

Similarly Hispanics, who previously have had a longer life expectancy than Whites, saw that difference shrink dramatically between 2018 and 2020, going from 3.2 to 0.68 years, respectively.

The authors attribute the drop in overall life expectancy and the widened mortality gaps among racial and ethnic groups to “mishandling” of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to “deeply rooted factors that have put the country at a health disadvantage for decades.”

“Evidence of disproportionate reductions in life expectancy among racial and ethnic groups…. draws attention to the root causes of racial inequities in health, wealth, and wellbeing,” they write. “Foremost among these causes is systemic racism; extensive research has shown that systems of power in the U.S. structure opportunity and assign value in ways that disadvantage Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous populations [and] many of the same factors placed these populations at greater risk from COVID-19.”

The study, “Effect of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 on populations in the USA and other high income countries: simulations of provisional mortality data” appears in The BMJ.