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Life expectancy in the United States fell in 2021, for the second consecutive year.
In 2019, a person born in the United States had a life expectancy of nearly 80 years. In 2020, due to the pandemic, he was down to 77 years old. In 2021, the lifespan fell again, to 76.1 years. And for some Americans, life expectancy is even lower, according to an interim analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The results of this study are very disturbing,” says Dr. Steven Woolf, professor of population health and health equity at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This shows that life expectancy in the United States in 2021 was even lower than in 2020,” he says.
Other high-income countries have seen a rebound in life expectancy, which according to Woolf makes the US results “all the more tragic”.
One of the most dramatic falls in life expectancy in 2021 was between American Indians and Alaska natives. Between 2020 and 2021, the life expectancy of this group fell by almost two years, from 67.1 in 2020 to 65.2 in 2021.
“It’s awful,” Woolf says. “The losses in the Native American population were dire during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it reflects many barriers tribal communities face to gain access to treatment,” she says.
American whites also saw a greater drop in life expectancy in 2021 than black and Hispanic Americans. This was the reverse of what happened in 2020, when Hispanic Americans saw a 4-year decline and Black Americans saw a 3-year decline. Life expectancy for white Americans fell by one year in 2021 to 76.4. Black Americans saw a 0.7 year decline to 70.8 years, Hispanic Americans saw a 0.2 year decline to 77.7 years. American Asians saw a 0.1 year decline to 83.5 years.
Woolf says the greater decline in life expectancy for white Americans could reflect attitudes in some parts of the country towards vaccines and pandemic control measures. The US health system is fragmented, she points out: Public health is determined by the states, which means there were 50 different pandemic response plans. States that were more relaxed about COVID restrictions and have lower vaccination rates experienced higher excess deaths during delta and omicron peaks than states that had more aggressive vaccination, masking, and other mitigation requirements campaigns .
Death rates from COVID-19 in counties that went heavily for Donald Trump had higher death rates than counties that favored President Biden, according to an analysis by NPR.
Injuries, heart disease, chronic liver disease, and cirrhosis and suicide have also contributed to the decline in life expectancy. The increase in unintentional injuries in 2021 was largely due to drug overdose deaths, which increased during the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has actually wiped out the health gains the United States made in the 20th century,” says John Haaga, a member of the Maryland Aging Commission. “Having this second year of crash basically wiped out the meager gains made over the century is really quite shocking,” he says.
The US has been lagging behind for years in making improvements in things like heart disease – the country’s number one killer – and the life expectancy gap between the US and other countries has been growing for decades, Haaga says.
“Many much poorer countries are faring much better than us in terms of life expectancy,” he says. “It’s not genetics, it’s been 50 years behind.”