The COVID-19 pandemic has erased more than a decade of improvements in life expectancy in the United States and widened racial and ethnic inequalities, according to new government data.
Life expectancy declined by one year in 2020, to 77.8 years, a figure last seen in 2006, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a report published Thursday.
Hispanic Americans, however, lost nearly two years, and African Americans, almost three.
"It's a really big deal," said Princeton University demographer Noreen Goldman. It was a big deal in 2015, 2016 and 2017 when life expectancy slipped by one-tenth of a year, she noted.
COVID-19 grew the gap between the life expectancy of African American and white Americans by nearly half. White people outlived Black people by just over four years in 2019. In the first half of 2020, it was six years.
Hispanic Americans had a three-year advantage over white people in life expectancy in 2019. But it fell to just below two years in early 2020.
And these are likely underestimates. The data only include the first half of the year. Surges in deaths in the second half of the year will raise the figure, Goldman added.
Goldman co-authored a study with similar overall findings earlier this year. But that research covered more of 2020 than the CDC did, including late-year surges that hit Hispanic populations hardest. Goldman and her colleague show Hispanic life expectancy declined by three years.
"That kind of virtually complete loss of the advantage in survival in the matter of one year is shocking," she said.
France projected a half-year decline for men and four-tenths for women. Swedish men also lost an estimated half a year, and women, three-tenths.
U.S. life expectancy already "lags substantially behind virtually all of the high-income countries," Goldman noted. "Now, we'll just be even further behind."
These estimates look at cases where COVID-19 is listed as the cause of death. But "it's definitely true that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting other causes of death indirectly," said University of Oxford demographer José Manuel Aburto, co-author of the study on life expectancy in England and Wales.
He said people have delayed treatment for other diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, out of fear of going to the hospital, which may lead to higher death rates.
Experts do not expect life expectancy to snap back to normal when the pandemic ends.
For many COVID-19 patients, the disease has worsened existing health problems or created new ones that persist long after the virus is gone.
Plus, the social and economic impacts of the pandemic "have been terrible on a large segment of the population that will translate into poorer health and ultimately poor survival,” Goldman said. “And those effects will last for quite a while."