US life expectancy plunged again in 2021, down about a year
NEW YORK — U.S. life expectancy fell for the second straight year in 2021, falling nearly a year from 2020, according to a government report released Wednesday.
During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the estimated lifespan of Americans shortened by nearly three years. The last comparable decline occurred in the early 1940s, at the height of World War II.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have blamed COVID-19 for about half the decline in 2021, a year in which vaccinations became widely available, but new coronavirus variants caused waves of hospitalizations and of deceased. Other factors contributing to the decline are long-standing issues: drug overdoses, heart disease, suicides and chronic liver disease.
“It’s a sad situation. It was bad before and it got worse,” said Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania.
Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year can expect to live, given the death rates at that time. It’s “the most fundamental indicator of population health in this country,” said Robert Hummer, a researcher at the University of North Carolina focused on population health models.
Life expectancy in the United States has been rising for decades, but progress stalled before the pandemic.
He was 78 years and 10 months in 2019. In 2020, he dropped to 77. Last year it fell to around 76 years, 1 month.
The last time it was this low was in 1996.
Declines during the pandemic have been worse for some racial groups, and some gaps have widened. For example, the life expectancy of Native Americans and Alaska Natives has decreased by more than 6 and a half years since the start of the pandemic and stands at 65 years. During the same period, life expectancy for Asian Americans has dropped by about two years to 83-1/2.
Experts say there are many possible reasons for the differences, including lack of access to quality health care, lower vaccination rates and a larger share of the population in lower-paying jobs that required them to continue working when the pandemic was at its worst.
The new report is based on provisional data. Life expectancy estimates may change with the addition of additional data and further analysis. For example, the CDC initially stated that life expectancy in 2020 has decreased by approximately 1 year and 6 months. But after more death reports and scans came in, it ended up being about 1 year 10 months.
But it’s likely the declines in 2020 and 2021 will be the first two straight years of declines in U.S. life expectancy since the early 1960s, CDC officials said.
Conclusions in the report:
• Life expectancy for women in the United States has dropped by about 10 months, from just under 80 in 2020 to just over 79 in 2021. Life expectancy for men has dropped by a full year, going from about 74 years old to 73 years old.
• Deaths from COVID-19 were the main reason for the decline. The second biggest contributor was deaths from accidental injuries – mostly drug overdoses, which killed a record 107,000 Americans last year.
• Whites saw the second largest decline among racial and ethnic groups, with life expectancy falling by a year, to around 76 years and 5 months. Black Americans saw the third largest decline, falling more than eight months, to 70, 10 months
• Hispanic Americans had seen a huge drop in life expectancy in 2020 – four years. But in 2021, their life expectancy has dropped by around two months, to around 77 years and 7 months. Preston thinks good vaccination rates among Hispanics played a role.
The report also suggests that gains against suicide are being reversed.
Suicides in the United States increased from the early 2000s until 2018. But they fell a little in 2019 and then more in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. Experts have wondered if this could be linked to a phenomenon observed at the start of wars and national disasters in which people band together and support each other.
The new report says suicide contributed to the drop in life expectancy in 2021, but it didn’t provide details. According to preliminary figures from a public CDC database, the number of suicides in the United States rose last year by about 2,000, to 48,000. The suicide rate in the United States also increased , dropping from 13.5 per 100,000 to 14.1, roughly bringing it back to where it was in 2018.
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