Many Americans are living longer, but gaps are seen in some groups

Some members of minority groups had increases in life expectancy, but wide differences are seen among Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic may have erased those gains.

Life expectancy among Americans increased over a 20-year span, but a new study still shows troubling gaps among members of some racial groups.

Gains in life expectancy slowed more recently, according to the study published June 16 in The Lancet. Researchers at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine worked with researchers from the National Institutes of Health on the study, which examined life expectancy nationally and at the county level.

From 2000-2019, the overall life expectancy of Americans rose by 2.3 years, the study found. Most of the progress came before 2010.

The study focused on the years before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, early studies of 2020, the first year of the pandemic, show drops in lifespan, among many Americans.

While federal officials have focused on reducing healthcare disparities among disadvantaged groups, the study found bigger gains among members of minority groups. Between 2020 and 2019, Black Americans saw the largest increase in life expectancy (3.9 years). Asian-Americans saw an increase of 2.9 years, and the lifespan in the Latino population rose by 2.7 years.

White Americans lagged the other groups, with a gain in life expectancy of 1.7 years. The study found no difference in the lifespan of the American Indian/Alaska Native population.

Still, Black Americans continue to have a shorter lifespan than most other Americans, the study found. In 2019, the life expectancy among Black Americans was 75.3 years. By comparison, white Americans had a typical lifespan of 78.9 years in 2019.

In 2019, the longest lifespan was found in the Asian population (85.7 years), followed by the Latino population (82.2).

The American Indian/Alaska Native population had the shortest lifespan (73.1 years), the study found. In most counties, life expectancy in this group dropped.

Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D., director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, a division of the NIH, was a co-author of the study. He said in a statement that the differences in lifespan raise “significant questions.”

“Why is life expectancy worse for some and better for others? The novel details in this study provide us the opportunity to evaluate the impact of social and structural determinants on health outcomes in unprecedented ways,” Pérez-Stable said. “This in turn allows us to better identify responsive and enduring interventions for local communities.”

In 2019, the estimated life expectancy among all Americans was below 65 years in some counties and over 90 years in others. That year, the gap in the American Indian/Alaska Native population was especially noteworthy, ranging from under 59 to over 93 years.

Between 2010 and 2019, virtually all racial groups nationwide saw only small increases in life expectancy. During that span, however, almost 60% of U.S. counties experienced a dip in lifespans.

From 2000 to 2019, 88% of the nation’s counties saw a rise in life expectancy, but most of the increases came between 2000 to 2010.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have wiped away some or all of the gains in life expectancy, researchers say. Early studies indicate a reduced lifespan among most Americans, with bigger declines seen among Black and Latino Americans.

Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of health metrics at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, said the COVID-19 pandemic likely exacerbated disparities in healthcare outcomes.

“The pandemic exposed stressors and weaknesses in local and national systems that continuously put our most vulnerable populations at risk,” Dwyer-Lindgren said in a statement accompanying the study.