U.S. life expectancy continued to decline in 2021, while rebounding from the pandemic in many other high-income countries, according to new preliminary analysis that found the U.S. decline was largely due to the deaths of white Americans.
Life expectancy is the age at which newborns could expect to live if each year of life were the same as their year of birth. In 2020, this expectation has dropped sharply in the United States, as in many countries shaken by the pandemic. In 2021, as more people got vaccinated, many “peer countries” began to see their life expectancies rebound, according to the new study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed.
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The researchers – public health experts from Colorado, Virginia and Washington, DC – thought they would find a similar trajectory in the United States. But that was not the case. The study estimated that life expectancy in the United States continued to decline in 2021, by a total of 2.26 years from 2019.
The study’s findings on life expectancy reflect the toll of the pandemic. Of 3,383,729 total deaths in the United States reported by federal authorities in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the leading causes of death remained heart disease and cancer. COVID-19 came third, accounting for about 350,000 deaths, or about 10%. In 2021, the death toll from COVID-19 was 478,286, according to New York Times data, an increase of 38%.
The other 10 leading causes of death in the United States are injury, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, pneumonia and kidney disease. Several are linked to obesity, which is very prevalent in the American population.
In 2020, federal data shows that black and Hispanic Americans experienced the largest declines in life expectancy. The decline was largely due to an inequitable response to the pandemic, the study authors agreed. In 2021, life expectancy for Black Americans began to rebound slightly and remained roughly flat for Hispanic Americans, according to the study.
The estimated overall decline in U.S. life expectancy for 2021 was almost entirely due to increased deaths among the white population, according to Dr. Steven Woolf, professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia. Commonwealth University and one of the authors of the study.
White people make up a significant portion of the population in states and communities that had lax pandemic restrictions, he said, and people who opposed vaccination and restrictive policies designed to reduce the viral transmission. “We need to tackle the elephant in the room: the polarization and partisanship in the way the pandemic has been handled,” Woolf said.
The peer countries cited by the researchers were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England and Wales, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. They calculated life expectancy figures using official figures for 2019 and 2020, and estimated for 2021 using a validated modeling method.
The approach is “reasonable,” said Noreen Goldman, a demographer at Princeton University, who was not involved in the research. However, she noted that all estimates were subject to delays in reporting and that it was important to emphasize that the findings were preliminary.
The US life expectancy estimate for 2021 has not yet been officially released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Goldman said, and would not be for at least a few months.
Since life expectancy calculations reflect conditions in the year they are made, they are expected to change in future years. For example, between 1917 and 1918, during the flu pandemic, life expectancy in the United States dropped by 11.8 years, but quickly rebounded.
Yet Laudan Aron, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center and one of the study’s authors, pointed to the “health disadvantage of the United States,” a term coined in a 2013 report that she helped write. “Even Americans who have access to the best the United States has to offer are not doing well health-wise.” They are in poorer health than their British counterparts, she said, and structural issues around systemic racism and inequality can reduce positive outcomes for all.
Goldman pointed to research showing that since 2000, the life expectancy of a 50-year-old woman in the wealthiest fifth of US counties was lower than it would be if she lived in the poorest fifth of jurisdictions. Japanese. And life expectancy in the United States has largely stagnated and declined since then, she said.