As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, life expectancy in the United States dropped one full year during the first half of 2020, according to a new Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report, with even greater declines seen among Black and Hispanic people.
Preliminary data from the agency’s National Center for Health Statistics released Thursday mark a reversal of incremental gains over the past few years. Life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population declined from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 years for January through June 2020. During that same time period, life expectancy for non-Hispanic Black people decreased by 2.7 years (74.7 to 72); for Hispanic individuals, 1.9 years (81.8 to 79.9); and for non-Hispanic white people, 0.8 years (78.8 to 78).
The Covid-19 pandemic is likely responsible for “the majority of the decline,” said Elizabeth Arias, a health scientist at the Mortality Statistics Branch of the NCHS and the lead author of the report.
Arias said it’s also possible that some of the decline can be indirectly attributed to the pandemic, such as the rise in drug overdose deaths. José Manuel Aburto, a demographer at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the analysis, said that many other factors related to the pandemic could influence deaths, such as general delays in receiving medical care and effects on other hospital patients, such cardiac care patients, at facilities overwhelmed by Covid-19.
“Life expectancy has mostly been increasing from year to year,” said Arias. Even before 2018, Arias said life expectancy estimates tended to be almost the same or decrease very slightly, for instance by a few tenths of a year.
At the same time, Aburto said, life expectancy in the U.S. has not significantly increased in the last decade, which is already a deviation from much of the world and particularly unusual for a high-income country like the U.S. A decline of a full year, Aburto said, is even more unheard of, which he said points to the “unprecedented burden on life expectancy” the pandemic has taken.
Among males, life expectancy at birth fell 1.2 years, from 76.3 years in 2019 to 75.1 during the first half of 2020. For females, it dropped 0.9 years, from 81.4 years to 80.5. The gap in life expectancy between sexes increased from 5.1 years in 2019 to 5.4 in 2020.
Looking further at racial disparities in the data, the gap in life expectancy between non-Hispanic white and Black people widened from 4.1 years in 2019 to six years in the first half of 2020 — the largest gap since 1998.
“The disparities between those populations have been declining consistently, since we began estimating life expectancy, which goes back to 1900,” she said.
The gap between Hispanic and white non-Hispanic individuals narrowed, however, from three years in 2019 to 1.9 in 2020.
Non-Hispanic Black males experienced the highest decline in life expectancy — three years — of any race and sex subgroup in the new analysis, followed by Hispanic males (2.4 years), non-Hispanic Black females (2.3 years), and Hispanic females (1.1 years).
While Aburto said he was not surprised by the racial disparities, he did not expect them to be so stark. “What is baffling to me is the magnitude of these decreases,” he said.
Aburto emphasized that these disparities have been driven by systemic inequities in access to health care and a higher likelihood of being exposed to environmental risks. These effects were only exacerbated by the pandemic, as people of color are more likely to have to work in jobs that expose them to sick people and less likely to be able to work from home.
The data come with several caveats: The provisional count means that the report doesn’t capture the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Arias said data from the entire year will be released in May or June, and finalized versions of 2020 data on mortality and life expectancy, which the NCHS publishes annually, will be released by the end of this year or early next year.
And because the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic largely affected urban areas, where people of color are more likely to live, overall life expectancy could be an underestimate. Arias said data from the full year will likely better reflect the impact of the pandemic on life expectancy, since the pandemic eventually spread throughout both urban and rural areas.
Aburto said he thinks it’s likely life expectancy will decrease for the rest of 2020. “My intuition, as a researcher usually analyzing life expectancy trends, is that life expectancy will drop even more,” he said. He pointed to the country-wide increase in Covid-19 deaths in the second half of the year, and also numbers he’s seen from the Human Mortality Database, which has more recent data available.
Like Aburto, Arias said the differences in life expectancy among racial groups were particularly striking, as the Covid-19 pandemic took a disproportionate toll on communities of color.
“There’s a big difference there,” Arias said. “That was one of things that stuck out the most.”
This story has been updated with additional comment.