Thanks to the coronavirus, the U.S. life expectancy is now the lowest in nearly 20 years

u.s. life expectancy covid
Photo via Gareth Milner/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The United States reached a grim milestone on Feb. 22: More than 500,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. As a result, experts say the average life expectancy in the U.S. fell by 1.13 years to 77.48 in 2020. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is officially one of the deadliest events to occur to Americans, causing more deaths than World War 1, Korea, Vietnam and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. It has now surpassed the 498,332 combined Union and Confederate deaths recorded in the Civil War, and it is on track to meet the 675,000 U.S. deaths caused by the 1918 influenza pandemic

In a study published in early February, experts showed how the U.S. dropped to the lowest mortality rate since 2003. It’s the largest single-year decline in 40 years for the U.S. life expectancy rate. 

The influenza pandemic in 1918 continues to reign as the singular event to cause the highest drop of life expectancy—from anywhere between seven and 12 years. It will probably remain higher than COVID-19’s impact because it infected many more young adults than COVID-19, which has a disproportionate effect on people over 65. 

The mortality rate change is much worse for Black and Latino people. The study found that the estimated reductions are three to four times worse. 

Because of the coronavirus, the life expectancy for Black Americans dropped by 2.7 years to 72. It’s a 40% increase in the Black-White life expectancy gap, from 3.6 years to more than five years—eliminating progress in reducing this differential since 2006.

Meanwhile, Latinos—who have historically had a better life expectancy than white people since they began to be counted separately in 2006—had the second-highest drop in U.S. life expectancy. Their advantage fell from three years to less than one year. 

“Consequently, COVID-19 is expected to reverse over 10 years of progress made in closing the Black−White gap in life expectancy and reduce the previous Latino mortality advantage by over 70%,” the study said. 

The study’s authors said that a “plethora of factors likely contribute to these disparities,” including structural inequalities that increase both the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the risk of death. 

However, study co-author Noreen Goldman told USA Today that the life expectancy rate could be worse because the study doesn’t account for indirectly attributed deaths.

“It is interesting that the two estimates are so close to one another but … I think (and fear) that the final estimate for the decline in life expectancy in 2020 will be non-trivially higher,” Goldman said.

Sources: ABC News, US Veterans Affairs, CDC, PNAS, USA Today

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