Huge drop in US life expectancy in pandemic
Life expectancy in the United States dropped a staggering one year during the first half of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic caused its first wave of deaths, health officials are reporting.
Minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Blacks losing nearly three years and Hispanics, nearly two years, according to preliminary estimates Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re seeing a substantial decline in life expectancy from 2019. So it’s right about a one year decline in life expectancy. And while that doesn’t sound like a whole lot at a population level, this is a huge decline. And it’s not something that we’ve seen. And we’ve got to go back to World War II in the 1940s to find a decline like this in the past,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees the numbers for the CDC.
Other experts say it shows the profound impact of COVID-19, not just on deaths directly due to infection but also from heart disease, cancer and other conditions.
“What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year … I would expect that these numbers would only get worse,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco.
This is the first time the CDC has reported on life expectancy from early, partial records; more death certificates from that period may yet come in. It’s already known that 2020 was the deadliest year in U.S. history, with deaths topping 3 million for the first time.
Life expectancy is how long a baby born today can expect to live, on average.
In the first half of last year, that was 77.8 years for Americans overall, down one year from 78.8 in 2019. For males it was 75.1 years and for females, 80.5 years.
As a group, Hispanics have had the most longevity despite generally lower social and economic status, and still do.
Blacks now lag whites by six years in life expectancy, reversing a trend that had been bringing their numbers closer since 1993.
Between 2019 and the first half of 2020, life expectancy decreased 2.7 years for Blacks, to 72. It dropped 1.9 years for Hispanics, to 79.9, and by 0.8 years for whites, to 78.
“Throughout the entire pandemic, what we have seen time and time again is that our Black, Latino, indigenous populations have really borne the brunt of this endemic,” Bibbins-Domingo said.
She added,”we see that they are at increased risk of exposure because they are oftentimes in front-line, front-facing work, oftentimes low-wage work without the additional resources to protect themselves. They’re often living in environments where they are more likely to transmit the virus to others who live with them. They’re oftentimes living in congregate living settings that put people at risk for higher transmission.”
To help remedy these disparities, Bibbins-Domingo said more needs to be done to distribute vaccines equitably, to improve working conditions and better protect minorities from infection, and to include minorities and immigrants in economic relief measures.
Dr. Otis Brawley, a public health and cancer professor at Johns Hopkins University, agreed.
“The racial inequity that we say in coronaviruses are really characteristic of the racial inequities that we see in many diseases,” he said. “The focus really needs to be broad spread of getting every American adequate care. And health care needs to be defined as prevention as well as treatment.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.