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U.S. life expectancy falls for 2nd year in a row

The continued death toll from COVID led to another drop in life expectancy in 2021.
Scott Olson
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The continued death toll from COVID led to another drop in life expectancy in 2021.

Despite the availability of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, so many people died in the second year of the pandemic in the U.S. that the nation's life expectancy dropped for a second year in a row last year, according to a new analysis.

The analysis of provisional government statistics found U.S. life expectancy fell by just under a half a year in 2021, adding to a dramatic plummet in life expectancy that occurred in 2020. Public health experts had hoped the vaccines would prevent another drop the following year.

"The finding that instead we had a horrible loss of life in 2021 that actually drove the life expectancy even lower than it was in 2020 is very disturbing," says Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of population health and health equity at Virginia Commonwealth University, who help conduct the analysis. "It speaks to an extensive loss of life during 2021."

Many of the deaths occurred in people in the prime of their lives, Woolf says, and drove the overall U.S. life expectancy to fall to 76.6 years — the lowest in at least 25 years.

"Shame on the U.S.," says Noreen Goldman, a demographer at Princeton University who wasn't involved in the research. "It just continues to boggle my mind how poorly we've come through this pandemic. And I find that disgraceful."

The 2021 drop came after U.S life expectancy plummeted in 2020, tumbling by almost two years — the biggest one-year fall in U.S. life expectancy since at least World War II.

"The motivation for this study was to determine whether the horrible drop in life expectancy that we documented in 2020 resolved or rebounded in 2021 or whether there was a continued decline. Unfortunately, we did not find good news," Woolf told NPR in an interview.

Surprisingly, while the 2020 drop in life expectancy hit Blacks and Hispanics hardest, that wasn't the case in 2021, the analysis found. Life expectancy among Hispanics didn't significantly change between 2020 and 2021, and life expectancy of Blacks actually inched up slightly — by a little less than half a year.

In contrast, the life expectancy of whites fell by about a third of a year, mostly among white men.

"So what this tells us is that this continued decline in life expectancy that we see in the second year has been carried mainly by deaths in the white population," Woolf says.

It's unclear why this happened, but Woolf and others think it may be due in part to whites being more likely to live in states with fewer restrictions, so they let down their guard more, while often refusing to get vaccinated.

"The deaths that occurred in 2021 were a product not only of a lack of vaccination, which was a huge factor, but also being in places that didn't observe policies like masking and social distancing that prevented transmission of the virus," Woolf says.

Because the 2020 drop in life expectancy hit Blacks and Latinos so much harder, they still lost more ground overall in the two years since the pandemic began. Hispanics lost almost four years and Blacks almost three, compared to less than two for whites.

The 2021 drop also widened the gap in life expectancy between the U.S. and other wealthy countries, the analysis found. That was due primarily to lower vaccination rates in the U.S., researchers say.

Life expectancy only dropped by about a half a year in 2020 in countries like England, France and Germany, and then actually increased by about a third of a year in 2021, according to the analysis. So the gap between the U.S. and those countries grew from more than three years in 2019 to more than five years in 2021.

The researchers say a big part of that is fewer pandemic restrictions and more vaccine hesitancy in the U.S., which resulted in lower vaccination rates and a much higher death toll. The prevalence of other health problems like diabetes and obesity also played a role, they say.

"We spend a fortune on medical care and we're a high-income country. We should be able to do far better," Goldman says.

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.