The Pandemic Led To The Biggest Drop In U.S. Life Expectancy Since WWII, Study Finds : Coronavirus Updates Life expectancy fell by nearly two years between 2018 and 2020, largely due to COVID-19. Declines were most pronounced among minority groups, including Black and Hispanic people.

The Pandemic Led To The Biggest Drop In U.S. Life Expectancy Since WWII, Study Finds

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1009611699/1009751027" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So many Americans have died during the pandemic that it altered the life expectancy of the entire country. A study finds a decline by almost two years. For people who identify as Black or Latino, life expectancy declined even more. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: In 2018, people in the U.S. could expect to live, on average, about 79 years. But the pandemic changed this. Dr. Steve Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University estimates life expectancy at the end of 2020 dropped to about 77 years.

STEVEN WOOLF: We have not seen a decrease like this since World War II. So this is - it's a horrific decrease in life expectancy. And this dramatic fall is clearly due to the pandemic.

AUBREY: In addition to the roughly 600,000 people who died from COVID-19, Woolf says many other factors play into the decreased longevity - for instance, disruptions in health care.

WOOLF: Disruptions in chronic disease management, like problems with controlling diabetes, and behavioral health crises, where people struggling with addiction disorders or depression might not have gotten the help that they needed.

AUBREY: The lack of access to care and other disruptions hit some Americans much harder than others. It's been documented that the COVID death rate for Black Americans was twice as high compared to white Americans. And the new study finds steeper declines in life expectancy.

WOOLF: African Americans saw their life expectancy decrease by 3.3 years, and Hispanic Americans saw their life expectancy decrease by 3.9 years. These are massive numbers.

AUBREY: Life expectancy in the U.S. had already been slowly declining in the years leading up to the pandemic. And compared to people in other countries, the U.S. fares pretty poorly, ranking 41st among wealthy nations. People in the U.S. live shorter lives on average than people in Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea and many European countries. Lesley Curtis is chair of the department of population health sciences at Duke University School of Medicine.

LESLEY CURTIS: I wasn't surprised that the life expectancy actually decreased between 2018 and 2020.

AUBREY: But she was surprised to see that the decline in life expectancy in a group of 16 other wealthy nations was only a couple of months, compared to the nearly two-year decline in the U.S. And she says the even larger declines in longevity among Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. are very telling.

CURTIS: I think it is impossible to look at these findings and not see a reflection of the systemic racism.

AUBREY: As well as income inequality and a lack of access to health care and healthy food that all predate the pandemic. Dr. Steve Woolf says life expectancy in the U.S. will likely rebound post-pandemic, but a complete reversal of the trend is unlikely.

INSKEEP: The U.S. has some of the best hospitals and some of the greatest scientists, but we have big gaps in getting care to people who need it most when they need it most.

AUBREY: And that will continue, he says, until systemic problems are addressed.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.