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U.S. sees sharp lower in life expectancy largely because of COVID-19 pandemic, CDC says

New preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that average life expectancy in the United States has decreased by 1.5 years from 2020. This staggering decline is primarily due to the high rate of 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) deaths the country has seen over the course of the pandemic. Since COVID-19 first reached the US, over 34.21 million cases and over 609,823 COVID-19-related deaths have been confirmed nationwide – currently the highest national number in the world for either case.

The study reports that the average life expectancy of Americans fell from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020. The data suggests that 73.8% of this decrease is related to COVID-19-related deaths. “US life expectancy at birth for 2020 was 77.3 years based on near-definitive data, the lowest since 2003,” the CDC researchers wrote in their report.

Study: P.preliminary estimates of life expectancy for 2020. Image source: Hyejin Kang / Shutterstock.com

How was the study conducted?

The report’s findings are based on preliminary 2020 data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a public health monitoring organization that processes and disseminates death and birth registers across the country. Because the study was based on this constantly evolving data source, some deaths or births were not included in the dataset, making the results preliminary.

The three races and races included in this study included Hispanic, non-Hispanic black, and non-Hispanic white populations, as these three groups make up more than 90% of the US population. Estimates for other ethnic groups living in the United States, such as the Native American and Alaskan Indians (AIAN), Asian and Hawaiian Native Americans, to name a few, were not included in the current study due to a lack of accurate information about death certificates.

Life expectancy is falling in the United States

Between 2010 and 2018, the United States saw its life expectancy increase slightly by 0.08 years. However, between 2019 and 2020, the researchers found that life expectancy at birth fell by about 1.5 years, from 78.8 to 77.3 years.

In terms of gender, men in the United States saw greater declines in their overall life expectancy than women in both absolute and relative terms. More precisely, the estimated life expectancy for men in 2020 was 74.5 years, which was 1.8 years less than in 2019. Women also recorded a decrease in their life expectancy from 81.4 years to 80.2 years between 2019 and 2020 .

Life Expectancy At Birth, By Sex, United States, 2000-2020.

Additional inequalities were found among the black population in the United States, where life expectancy decreased by 2.9 years between 2019 and 2020. In fact, the decrease in life expectancy in the black population was 2.4 times greater than the decrease recorded in the white population of 1.2 years.

In 2020, the life expectancy of black men was only 67.73 years, which is 3.56 years less than in 2018. The BMJ reports that black women also experienced a greater reduction in their life expectancy of 2.65 years because of Compared to the entire US population.

Hispanic individuals saw an even greater reduction in their life expectancy of 3.88 years, which was 2.9 times greater than the reductions reported for white people in the US, 3.7 years and 2.0 years, respectively, reported in 2019 until 2020.

Life expectancy at birth by Hispanic origin and race: United States, 2019 and 2020.

How life expectancy in the US compares to other nations

A study recently published in the BMJ also compared US life expectancy estimates with 16 other high-income countries where only sex aggregates were available. The comparison countries included Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

Compared to other high-income countries, the United States was already at a disadvantage at the beginning of the current decade, as its estimated life expectancy was 1.88 years lower than that of the comparable countries. This life expectancy deficit has increased further over the decade to 3.05 years in 2018.

Between 2018 and 2020, the life expectancy gap in the United States compared to peer countries has widened significantly to 4.69 years. In addition, the decrease in life expectancy reported between 2018 and 2020 was 8.5 times higher than in the comparison countries. In fact, the decline in life expectancy reported in the United States between 2018 and 2020 was the largest decline in that country since 1943.

While the six nations Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea and Taiwan all reported increases in their life expectancy between 2018 and 2020, the 10 other nations included in this study reported a decrease in their estimated life expectancy in the range of 0.12 years to 1 , 09 years.

Taken together, none of the reductions in life expectancy in other high-income countries matched those reported in the US

The advantage of calculating life expectancy

In general, life expectancy estimates are used to summarize the death rate of a population at any given point in time. While life expectancy estimates are not used to predict death rates for people living today, they are used instead to provide information about a nation’s current death rates. Importantly, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, life expectancy rates help determine which people or locations are most affected by the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn public attention to systemic inequalities of health, wealth and wellbeing and the fact that these systems often discriminate against people of color while unfairly benefiting white people, particularly in the United States. For example, although the life expectancy of blacks in the United States has consistently been lower than that of whites, that gap has narrowed over the past three decades. However, between 2019 and 2020, the life expectancy advantage of whites over blacks in the United States increased by 41.5%.

In 2019, the Hispanic population previously had a 3.0 year mortality advantage compared to the non-Hispanic white population. However, this gap decreased significantly to 1.2 years in 2020. Therefore, the reduction in the gaps reported between white Americans and both Hispanic and non-Hispanic black Americans shows worsening health and mortality scores for those populations.

Journal references:

  • Arias, E., Tejada-Vera, B., Ahmad, FA, & Kochanek, KD (2021). Preliminary life expectancy estimates for 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/vsrr015-508.pdf
  • Woolf, SH, Masters, RK & Aron, LY (2021). 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic Impact on Life Expectancy in the US and Other High-Income Countries: Simulations of Preliminary Mortality Data. BMJ 373, doi: 10.1136 / bmj.n1343. https://www.bmj.com/content/373/bmj.n1343.

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