Life expectancy in the United States is now 1.13 years shorter due to Covid-19 deaths last year, a drop 10 times larger than any other dip in recent years. For Black people, who’ve been hit disproportionately hard by the disease, 2.1 years have been shaved off expected life-spans. Latinos have lost 3.05 years.
The estimated figures, based on the 336,000 Covid deaths in 2020, represent the biggest decline in life expectancy in at least four decades and are the lowest expectations set since 2003.
Expect further declines in coming years, researchers say.
After decades of increasing life expectancy in America, the new findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, mark a steep drop on the heels of multiple declines since 2015, attributed to systemic inequities in health care and “deaths of despair” such as opioid overdoses, excess alcohol consumption, and suicide. The United States already ranked behind Cuba, Slovenia, and 47 other nations on this measure of longevity.
Life expectancy forecasts the expected life-span at birth if known death rates at the time were to remain consistent throughout that person’s life, based on age-specific mortality rates. It lends more weight to the odds of death late in life than early on.
How long people born today in America can expect to live (and the year-over-year decline):
Overall: 77.48 years (1.13)
Black people: 72.78 years (2.10)
Latinos: 78.77 years (3.05)
White people: 77.84 years (0.68)
Past gains lost
Prior to the pandemic, a gap in life expectancy between Black people and whites had been closing. Still, white men lived about 4.5 years longer than Black men, on average, and white women had a 2.7-years advantage on Black women.
Covid-19 has wiped out much of the gains, the researchers say.
“The Covid-19 pandemic’s disproportionate effect on the life expectancy of Black and Latino Americans likely has to do with their greater exposure through their workplace or extended family contacts, in addition to receiving poorer health care, leading to more infections and worse outcomes,” says study team member Theresa Andrasfay, PhD, a University of Southern California researcher who studies demography and health disparities.
“The bigger reductions in life expectancy for the Black and Latino populations result in part from a disproportionate number of deaths at younger ages for these groups,” says Andrasfay’s colleague Noreen Goldman, DSc, a professor of Demography and Public Affairs at Princeton University. “These findings underscore the need for protective behaviors and programs to reduce potential viral exposure among younger individuals who may not perceive themselves to be at high risk.”
Slide to continue in 2021 and perhaps beyond
A separate recent study projects lingering economic effects of the pandemic could cause an additional 1.4 million pandemic-related U.S. deaths over the next 20 years.
Regardless whether that forecast plays out, total U.S. Covid deaths are poised to surpass 500,000 in February, and so life expectancy can be expected to continue sliding.
“While the arrival of effective vaccines is hopeful, the U.S. is currently experiencing more daily Covid-19 deaths than at any other point in the pandemic,” Andrasfay points out. “Because of that, and because we expect there will be long-term health and economic effects that may result in worse mortality for many years to come, we expect there will be lingering effects on life expectancy in 2021.
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