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Pandemic Drives Largest Drop in Life Expectancy Since WWII

July 21, 2021 by Dan McCue
The CDC′s Tom Harkin Global Communications Center located on the organization′s Roybal Campus in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo Credit: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

U.S. life expectancy fell by a year and a half in 2020, the largest overall decline since World War II, the Centers for Disease Control reported Wednesday.

The decline to 77.3 years was driven by the coronavirus pandemic, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics said.

Life expectancy at birth declined by 1.5 years, the lowest level since 2003, the center said. Between 1942 and 1943, the height of the Second World War, life expectancy in the U.S. declined 2.9 years.

In an interview with Reuters, Elizabeth Arias, a CDC researcher who worked on the report, said U.S. life expectancy had been gradually increasing for decades.

“The decline between 2019 and 2020 was so large that it took us back to the levels we were in 2003. Sort of like we lost a decade,” Arias said.

But the numbers released Wednesday also underscored the racial disparities associated with the pandemic.

Life expectancy declined by: 

  • 1.2 years for the non-Hispanic White population, to 77.6 years;
  • 2.9 years for the non-Hispanic Black population, to 71.8 years;
  • 3 years for the Hispanic population, to 78.8 years.

Hispanic men, in particular, saw the greatest drop, 3.7 years.

COVID-19 deaths contributed to about 74% of the decline in life expectancy among the general U.S. population, according to the data. Another 11% of the decline can be attributed to increases in deaths from accidents or unintentional injuries, including drug overdose deaths.

For the Hispanic population, however, COVID-19 was responsible for 90% of the decline in life expectancy. 

For the Black population, which saw life expectancy reach the lowest level since 2000, COVID-19 contributed to 59% of the decline. For the white population, which saw life expectancy reach the lowest level since 2002, COVID-19 contributed to 68% of the decline.

While the disparity in life expectancy between the non-Hispanic White and Black population had been narrowing over the past three decades, the gap increased from 4.1 years in 2019 to 5.8 years in 2020.

The life expectancy gap between the Hispanic and White populations, meanwhile, narrowed.

The report didn’t include statistics on Asian-Americans or other racial groups.

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