Study reveals shocking decline in life expectancy in the U.S.
In this Sunday, May 10, 2020 file photo, Sharon Rivera adjusts flowers and other items left at the grave of her daughter, Victoria, at Calvary Cemetery in New York, on Mother's Day. Victoria died of a drug overdose in Sept. 22, 2019, when she was just 21 years old. According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, drug overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. | Kathy Willens/AP

From the moment we are born there are certain immutable truths we cannot escape. And the one which drives an entire entertainment industry genre and is a constant and gnawing anxiety as we age is death.

There is no avoiding it. And it leads to a single conclusion, the time in between life and death—our actions, reactions, non-action, etc.—matters. No surprise that we find comfort in knowing (hoping) we each have a lengthy life expectancy.

For the United States, though, life expectancy fell by more than a year, from 78.8 years to 77.3 years, during the first half of 2020, a shocking decline reflecting the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic (74 percent), as well as a rise from drug overdoses, heart attacks, and other diseases accompanying the viral outbreak, according to the National Center for Health Statistics recent report.

Just as the Covid-19 related death toll ticked up higher than three large-scale wars, this latest report shows that the last time life expectancy at birth dropped as dramatically was during World War II.

“This is a big departure. We haven’t seen anything this large since the first half of the 20th century when infectious disease was much more common,” said Elizabeth Arias, Ph.D., a health scientist for the NCHS and lead author of the study.

Breaking this down further, you find Black and Latino Americans were hit harder than white people. A clear reflection of the racial and socioeconomic disparities of the pandemic. Black Americans lost 2.7 years of life expectancy, and Latinos lost 1.9. White life expectancy dropped by 0.8 years.

U.S. Latinos—who have a longer life expectancy than non-Latino Blacks or whites (“The Hispanic Paradox”), saw the largest decline in life expectancy during the pandemic, dropping three years from 81.8 years in 2019 to 78.8 years in 2020. Covid-19 was responsible for 90 percent of that decline.

“Those are very large disparities, and it reflects that the pandemic affected these two minority groups much more than the majority population,” said Arias. “So, they experienced the bulk of the mortality.”

The data also showed an increased death total from other causes—drug overdoses making up 93,000 deaths in 2020—such as strokes and other long-term health issues. During the early months of the pandemic, many seriously ill people delayed seeking health care out of fear of Covid-19.

Similar studies have reached the same conclusion as the NCHS. A Feb. 2021 paper released by the National Academy of Sciences looked at all the data for 2020 and estimated U.S. life expectancy would fall by 1.13 years because of the pandemic, while Black and Latino Americans’ lives would see a reduction of three to four times greater than white Americans.

“Consequently, covid-19 is expected to reverse over 10 years of progress made in closing the African American−white gap in life expectancy and reduce the previous Latino mortality advantage by over 70%,” read the study.

study published in the British Medical Journal looked at U.S. life expectancy data and compared it with the same data from 16 other “high-income” countries and found the U.S. decrease in life expectancy from 2018 to 2020 was 8.5 times higher than the average in peer counties. And that the declines were mostly amongst minority groups—Black and Hispanic people.

For decades, the U.S. life expectancy was on the rise, but began a slow decline in 2015, and has now come crashing down.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.