U.S. life expectancy dropped a striking 1.5 years in 2020 — the largest decline since World War II — as a result of the high death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The report, which is based on preliminary death data for all of last year, estimated that U.S. life expectancy fell from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020. That's the biggest decline in life expectancy in nearly 80 years, since 1942 to 1943, when life expectancy fell 2.9 years, the CDC said. The drop also brings U.S. life expectancy down to the lowest level since 2003, the agency said.
About three-quarters of 2020's decline in life expectancy can be attributed to deaths from COVID-19, the CDC said, while 11% of the decline is due to increases in accidental deaths, including drug overdoses. Last week, the agency reported that a record 93,000 drug-overdose deaths occurred in 2020, which is a 30% increase compared with 2019, according to The New York Times.
The decline in life expectancy was greater for men than women — men saw a 1.8-year drop in life expectancy in 2020, compared with 1.2 years for women.
Life expectancy at birth is an estimate of how long a population of people would live if they were to experience the death rates seen in a given period (in this case, in 2020), Live Science previously reported.
Life expectancy in the U.S. rarely declines, and even seemingly small drops make headlines. Most recently, U.S. life expectancy declined by 0.1 years in 2015, 2016 and 2017 — a trend that was attributed to rises in "deaths of despair," including drug overdose and suicide, Live Science previously reported.
In February 2021, the CDC found a 1-year decline in life expectancy for the first half (6 months) of 2020; but the new report includes data for the full year.
The new CDC report also showed even larger declines in 2020 among Black and Latino communities, which have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. The life expectancy for Black people declined by 2.9 years in 2020, to 71.8 years, and life expectancy for Hispanic people declined by 3 years, to 78.8 years. In contrast, the life expectancy for white people declined 1.2 years, to 77.6 years.
The researchers also noted that the new report is preliminary, and estimates could change if additional death certificates are received, or if data from existing certificates is revised, the agency said.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.