COVID-19 pandemic triggers largest drop in US life expectancy in decades
A new study from researchers at Princeton University and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, projects the COVID-19 pandemic to potentially generate the largest single-year decline in US life expectancy since the 1918 influenza pandemic. The declines are especially prominent in minority communities, and are expected to continue over the coming years as the country grapples with the repercussions of the novel disease.
Life expectancy calculations often serve as helpful indications of general health in a population. Over the last few decades life expectancy in the United States has incrementally increased. However, tiny declines have been detected and they often deliver important insights into broader societal issues.
Across 2015, 2016, and 2017 the United States saw annual drops in life expectancy of 0.1 years per year. These small and unusual decreases were suggested to be a signal of growing opioid problems, mostly in middle-aged white populations. One has to travel back to 1993 to find another year with a life expectancy decrease. In that instance, a single-year dip of 0.3 years was thought to be due to a combination of the AIDS epidemic, a high number of flu deaths and an unusual spike in homicides.
The latest projections for 2020, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calculate a single-year drop in US life expectancy of 1.13 years, down to 77.48 years. The researchers hypothesize this could be a beginning of a pandemic-influenced decline in US life expectancy spanning several years, greater than anything seen since the 1918 influenza pandemic.
“… a rapid return to pre−COVID-19 life expectancy is unlikely, due to the anticipated continued presence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, long-term detrimental health impacts for those who recovered from the virus, deaths from other health conditions that were precipitated by COVID-19, and social and economic losses resulting from the pandemic,” the researchers write in the new study.
Looking at minority communities the life expectancy declines from 2020 are even more unsettling. Black communities are predicted to lose 2.10 years in life expectancy (down to 72.78 years) and Latino life expectancy will drop a startling 3.05 years (down to 78.77 years).
“Our study analyzes the effect of this exceptional number of deaths on life expectancy for the entire nation, as well as the consequences for marginalized groups,” explains study co-author Theresa Andrasfay. “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.”
Although many high-income countries around the world can expect to see a pandemic-related decrease in life expectancy, the researchers suggest the drop in the United States is projected to exceed that of most high income countries. Andrasfay notes this projected 2020 life expectancy drop is most likely the greatest single-year decrease we will see in relation to COVID-19, however, she does not expect the rate to begin rising any time soon.
“While the arrival of effective vaccines is hopeful, the US is currently experiencing more daily COVID-19 deaths than at any other point in the pandemic,” says Andrasfay. “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.”
The new study was published in the journal PNAS.