U.S. life expectancy fell nearly 2 years due to COVID-19 pandemic

Black and Hispanic Americans saw larger drops in life expectancy, according to a new study. The nation’s drop was much larger than other countries.

In another sign of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the life expectancy in the United States dropped nearly two years from 2019 to 2020, a new study found.

Based on official death counts, the nation’s life expectancy dropped 1.87 years, according to the study published in Jama Network Open April 13. The U.S. life expectancy fell from 78.86 years in 2019 to 76.99 in 2020.

Members of minority groups suffered an even larger drop in life expectancy. Among Hispanic Americans, life expectancy fell 3.7 years from 2019 to 2020 (from 81.86 to 78.16). Life expectancy in Black populations fell 3.2 years that year (from 74.76 to 71.54). Conversely, in white populations, the drop in life expectancy was 1.38 years (from 78.78 to 77.40).

The larger drop in life expectancy among Black and Hispanic Americans is “consistent with a larger history of racial and ethnic health inequities resulting from policies of exclusion and systemic racism,” the authors wrote.

The study also examined the drop in life expectancy in the United States with 21 other countries. None of the other nations witnessed a decline as sharp as America. The average decrease in life expectancy in the 21 other countries was about 7 months (0.58 years), well below the drop seen in the United States.

In 2020, the average life expectancy in the 21 countries was 81.5 years, which is 4.5 years higher than in the United States.

“Policies to address the systemic causes of the US health disadvantage relative to peer countries and persistent racial and ethnic inequities are essential,” the authors wrote.

In the U.S., men had a larger drop in life expectancy than women, the study found. The life expectancy for men fell by 2.13 years from 2019 to 2020 (dropping from 76.32 to 74.19). Among women, life expectancy dropped by 1.51 years, falling from 81.39 to 79.88 years.

Hispanic men and Black men had the largest drops in life expectancy from 2019 to 2020. Among Hispanic men, the decline was 4.31 years (from 79.08 to 74.77). Black men had a decline of 3.54 years, dropping their life expectancy below 68 years of age (life expectancy fell from 71.30 to 67.76).

The study compared the data on U.S. life expectancy with these 21 nations: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England and Wales (combined), Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Taiwan.

The largest decrease in life expectancy in these nations occurred in Spain, with a decline of 1.43 years, which was still less than the drop seen in the U.S. Life expectancy actually rose in three countries: New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan.

The study cites a number of factors for the longer life expectancy of other nations compared to the U.S., including access to healthcare and health insurance. The U.S. also lags other countries in areas such as affordable housing, income inequality, access to healthy foods, public transit and walkability, the authors stated.

The authors wrote to their knowledge, this is the first study on life expectancy to utilize official death counts for 2020, rather than provisional data, and to compare the findings with data from other countries.

It’s unclear if the drop in life expectancy will be seen again in 2021, the study notes. That won’t be determined until official death counts are available for 2021.

“However, even with a return to prepandemic mortality rates, the US health disadvantage that has grown over decades will persist without corrective action,” the authors wrote.

“US residents will continue to die at higher rates than their counterparts in other advanced democracies, and their health will remain sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines, until the country makes policy choices that optimize health, well-being, and equity.”

Steven Woolf, a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, was the lead author of the study. Ryan Masters, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Laudan Aron, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center, co-authored the piece.