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Last Year Saw the Biggest Drop in U.S. Life Expectancy Since WWII

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People throw rose petals into the Pacific Ocean during a sunrise vigil organized by United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) at the Redondo Beach Pier to remember health care workers and patients who died from the COVID-19 pandemic.  (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Life expectancy in the United States declined by a year and a half in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says the coronavirus is largely to blame.

COVID-19 contributed to 74% of the decline in life expectancy from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

It was the largest one-year decline since World War II, when life expectancy dropped by 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943. Hispanic and Black communities saw the biggest declines.

For African Americans, life expectancy dropped by 2.9 years from 74.7 years in 2019 to 71.8 in 2020.

U.S. Hispanics — who have a longer life expectancy than non-Hispanic Blacks or whites saw the largest decline in life expectancy during the pandemic, dropping three years from 81.8 years in 2019 to 78.8 years in 2020. Hispanic males saw the biggest decline, with a drop of 3.7 years. COVID-19 was responsible for 90% of the decline among Hispanics.


The increase in drug overdose deaths was also a factor in declining life expectancy. More than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020. That’s the highest number reported in a single year. Other causes of death contributing to the decline were increases in homicide and deaths from diabetes and chronic liver disease.

Just last month a study published in the British Medical Journal looked at life expectancy data for the U.S. and compared it with life expectancy data from 16 other high-income countries. The study found the U.S. decrease in life expectancy from 2018 to 2020 was 8.5 times greater than the average decrease in peer countries. And the U.S. declines were most pronounced among minority groups, specifically Black and Hispanic people.

Study author Steven Woolf of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, told NPR’s Allison Aubrey, “We have not seen a decrease like this since World War II. It’s a horrific decrease in life expectancy.”

“It is impossible to look at these findings and not see a reflection of the systemic racism in the U.S.,” Lesley Curtis, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, told NPR.

“The range of factors that play into this include income inequality, the social safety net, as well as racial inequality and access to health care,” Curtis said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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