Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year in the first half of 2020, according to a report released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Experts say that covid-19 was a significant factor contributing to the drop.
Life expectancy for the entire US population fell to 77.8 years, similar to what it was in 2006, data from the CDC show.
Changes in life expectancy also widened racial and ethnic inequalities. Compared to 2019, the life expectancy of non-Hispanic black people in the US decreased approximately three times more than that of non-Hispanic white people, by 2.7 years. It doubled for Hispanics, in 1.9 years.
Life expectancy disparities between blacks and whites had narrowed in recent years, but these latest figures reverse some of that progress.
Over the past 40 years, life expectancy has slowly increased, but it has rarely decreased. Between 2014 and 2017, a peak period of the opioid epidemic, life expectancy decreased by a third of a year, which in itself was significant.
Estimates of life expectancy before 1980 have been measured less consistently, but experts told Citizen Free Press that estimates of drops in life expectancy after World War II range from less than one year to three years.
The pandemic has taken a huge toll on the population of the United States. Approximately 490,000 people have lost their lives to the disease, and the CDC estimates that the excess deaths in 2020 will be even higher.
“One year of life expectancy lost does not give a real idea of how bad this has been. In fact, millions of years of life were lost, ”Eileen Crimmins, a professor at the University of Southern California who has investigated changes in mortality, told Citizen Free Press. “Covid is on its way to causing more deaths than cancer or heart disease, and that is important.”
The majority of COVID-19 deaths have occurred among older adults, which would have a small effect on overall life expectancy.
But Theresa Andrasfay, a researcher at the University of Southern California who has published work on the potential impact of COVID-19 on life expectancy, points out that while deaths among younger adults may be less common, the numbers remain being substantial.
“Those deaths have a significant effect on life expectancy because they contribute to more years of life lost,” he told Citizen Free Press.
The disparities in lost years between Black and Hispanic people are in line with the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has had on communities of color. Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as non-Hispanic whites, according to the most recent data from the CDC.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we may have thought that it was a virus that affected everyone equally,” Andrasfay said. “We were aware of these long-standing health disparities, but this really leads us to understand how the Black and Latino communities were disproportionately affected.”
The new life expectancy estimates from the CDC represent the first time the agency has published these figures using provisional data that comes from death certificates that were received and processed during the first half of 2020.
Because it is based on the deaths recorded between January and June, the report notes that the estimates “do not reflect the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, nor other changes in the causes of death.”
Certain geographic areas were more affected than others early in the pandemic, and the timely reporting of deaths varies by jurisdiction.
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