‘A dismal situation’: U.S. life expectancy drops for 2nd year in a row

U.S. life expectancy has fallen to the lowest level seen since 1996, continuing a steep decline largely driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped once again, marking the second consecutive year the country has announced this grim finding.

U.S. life expectancy has now fallen to the lowest level seen since 1996, a government report revealed.

It also marks the steepest two-year decline in a century.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that life expectancy fell by a year and a half in 2020, to 77.3 years, primarily due to the deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, the estimated American lifespan has shortened by nearly three years, to 76 years, one month.

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The CDC says COVID-19 is to blame for about half of the decline in 2021, a year when vaccinations became widely available but new coronavirus variants caused waves of hospitalizations and deaths. Other contributors to the decline are long-standing problems: drug overdoses, heart disease, suicide and chronic liver disease.

As of Aug. 27, CDC data indicated that more than 1.4 million people have COVID-19 as a related cause of death on their death certificates.

Dr. Elizabeth Arias, a researcher at the CDC who worked on the report, told Reuters the decline effectively means the U.S. has lost a full decade’s worth of improvements in life expectancy.

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“Life expectancy has been increasing gradually every year for the past several decades,” she said. “The decline between 2019 and 2020 was so large that it took us back to the levels we were in 2003. Sort of like we lost a decade.”

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Samuel Preston, a University of Pennsylvania demographer, told NPR it’s “a dismal situation.”

“It was bad before and it’s gotten worse.”

However, the latest figures show major discrepancies in life expectancy along gender and racial and ethnic groups.

The gap between men and women widened in 2021, with men now expected to live to 73.2 years – nearly six years fewer than women.

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American Indian and Indigenous Alaskan people also face a decline of more than 6.5 years in life expectancy since the pandemic began. It now sits at 65 years.

White people saw the second-largest drop among racial and ethnic groups in 2021, with life expectancy falling one year, to about 76 years. Black Americans had the third-largest decline, falling more than eight months, to 70 years, 10 months.

Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of population health and health equity at Virginia Commonwealth University, told NPR the results of the study are “very disturbing.”

“This shows that U.S. life expectancy in 2021 was even lower than in 2020,” he said, adding that other high-income countries have seen a rebound in life expectancy, which Woolf says makes the U.S. results “all the more tragic.”

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Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live, given death rates at that time.

Life expectancy in the U.S. is among the lowest of developed nations around the world.

According to the latest available numbers from the World Bank, Hong Kong and Japan have the world’s highest life expectancies at around 85 followed by Singapore at 84.

Life expectancy in Canada hovers around 82.

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with files from The Associated Press

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