US life expectancy continues historic decline with another drop in 2021, study finds

The study — published Thursday on the preprint server medRxiv, which means it has not been peer-reviewed — found that after falling nearly 1.9 years in 2020, life expectancy in the US decreased another 0.4 years in 2021 as Covid-19 continued to spread.

“Although the introduction and availability of effective vaccines were expected to curb US mortality rates in 2021, slow vaccine uptake and the spread of the Delta variant produced large surges in mortality,” the researchers wrote.

With a brief exception in the summer of 2021, Covid-19 has consistently been one of the top three causes of death for the past two years in the US, an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows.

In the decade before the pandemic, life expectancy in the US changed by an average of less than 0.1 years annually, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Changes to life expectancy amid the Covid-19 pandemic widened an existing gap between the US and other high-income countries, the new report shows. Among a set of 19 peer countries, life expectancy dropped only a third as much as in the US in 2020 (down 0.6 years, on average) and rebounded in 2021, with an average increase of about 0.3 years.

Life expectancy in the US fell from 78.9 years in 2019 to 76.6 years in 2021 — now more than five years less than the average among peer nations.

“This speaks volumes about the life consequences of how the US handled the pandemic,” Dr. Steven Woolf, study author and director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a statement. “What happened in the U.S. is less about the variants than the levels of resistance to vaccination and the public’s rejection of practices, such as masking and mandates, to reduce viral transmission.”

In the US, there was a disproportionate decrease in life expectancy for Black and Hispanic people in 2020. But in 2021, White people had the largest losses, with life expectancy holding steady for Hispanic people and rising slightly for Black people.

For this study, Woolf and other researchers from the University of Colorado and the Urban Institute analyzed death data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the Human Mortality Database and other international statistical agencies.

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