The Slatest

U.S. Life Expectancy Plummeted by 1.5 Years in 2020, the Biggest Yearly Decline Since World War II

Commuters look at their mobile phones as they wait for a subway train in New York.
Commuters look at their mobile phones as they wait for a subway train in New York on June 10, 2021. ED JONES/Getty Images

The pandemic shaved a full year and a half off Americans’ life expectancy in 2020, according to new, provisional data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national drop in life expectancy from 78.8 years to 77.3 years once again shows the staggering human toll taken by the coronavirus over the last year, as American’s longevity plummeted by the largest amount in a single year since World War II. A combination of Covid-19 deaths, with accounted for nearly three-quarters of the decline, along with other factors, such as rising drug-related fatalities, contributed to the dwindling Americans’ health. The new data essentially sets the country back nearly 20 years, as U.S. life expectancy in 2020 dipped to 2003 levels. The declines were greatest amongst Hispanic and Black communities.

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The size of the drop in life expectancy is notable, in part, because shifts in the country’s life span are typically very small year-to-year, and since the mid-20th century, American longevity has consistently trended up with a few recent exceptions. Life expectancy is an important indicator of a nation’s well-being and prosperity such that “declines or stagnation in longevity can signal catastrophic events or deep problems in a society,” the Wall Street Journal notes. There is also the possibility as Covid-19 variants make their way through the country that U.S. life expectancy could decline again in 2021.

Communities of color were the hardest hit in 2020 largely due to persistent, historical health disparities that left them more vulnerable to the virus. Both communities bore a disproportionate burden, with Latinos’ life expectancy falling three years from 81.8 years in 2019 to 78.8 last year and Black Americans’ declining 2.9 years to 71.8. Hispanic men experienced the largest drop in longevity last year of any demographic with a full 3.7 years shaved off their life expectancy; the Hispanic community’s overall decline has been attributed to a spike in deaths among young people. According to the data, the coronavirus was responsible for 90 percent of the decline in life expectancy among Latinos, 68 percent among white population and about 59 percent among America’s Black population. The life expectancy of white Americans fell 1.2 years to 77.6 years.

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