The coronavirus pandemic cut US life expectancy by a year and a half in 2020, down to 77.3 years, according to CDC data released on Wednesday. The huge drop was also driven by increased deaths from overdoses, murders, diabetes, and alcohol-related liver disease.
The steepest one-year US drop in life expectancy since World War II, it follows years of smaller drops in life expectancy linked to heart disease, chronic illness, addiction, and poor healthcare.
“We have built a house of cards to live in, and the pandemic was a wind that just blew the house down,” said Syracuse University sociologist Jennifer Karas Montez, an expert on US mortality trends.
“We have been on a long-term plateau followed by more recent declines in life expectancy — a very precarious path in the US. Insert COVID-19, and you see the struggles everywhere,” Montez said.
Nearly 3.6 million people died in the US last year, around 375,000 of them from COVID-19, a disease that has now killed more than 600,000 nationwide and more than 4 million globally. COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death nationwide, behind heart disease and cancer, causing 74% of the year’s decline in life expectancy.
Drug overdoses, which killed a record-breaking 93,000 people last year, were responsible for another 11% of the drop, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Its report also shows that the gap in life expectancy between US men and women grew by almost 12% in 2020, to 5.7 years. Men — whose life expectancy dropped to 74.5 years — have significantly higher odds than women of dying from COVID-19.
The report also shows how the pandemic ravaged the Latinx population in the US, which saw the largest drop in life expectancy — a three-year drop to 78.8 years — 90% of which was driven by COVID-19. Life expectancy among Black Americans dropped 2.9 years, to 71.8, in 2020, “the lowest life expectancy for this population since 2000,” according to the NCHS.
The declines are “horrific, but sadly not unexpected,” Princeton economist Anne Case told BuzzFeed News in an email. “There are reasons to hope that there will be some bounce back in life expectancy in 2021, but the extent to which that happens will depend on reaching communities that have been resistant to vaccines.”
Some evidence has shown that drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver disease, or cirrhosis, deaths are also linked to the pandemic, driven by increased stress and isolation. But Case noted that some of the increased deaths have to do with larger trends: Cirrhosis is a long-term disease, for example, and the dangerous opioid fentanyl has been becoming more widespread in the illicit drug supply. “Some of the 2020 increase in mortality is probably part of the ongoing, underlying crisis” of so-called deaths of despair in the US, driven by wage and job losses among the working class, as well as exorbitant healthcare costs, that have wrecked the country’s health. Despite some predictions, the rate of suicides decreased by 4.6% last year, according to the CDC’s figures.
In a recent US life expectancy study that came to similar conclusions, Virginia Commonwealth University researchers found that the pandemic worsened already bad health trends — such as increases in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes — driven by poor access to preventive health care in the US, as compared with other wealthy nations.
“There isn’t a medication solution to fix this,” said Montez. “Instead of a house of cards, we need to build a house of bricks for people to build their lives in.”