How long will COVID-19 shorten the U.S. lifespan? UC Berkeley study finds the answer

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With over 190,000 COVID-19 deaths to date, and 1,000 more each day, America’s life expectancy may appear to be plummeting.

In a new study, researchers have found that COVID-19 is likely to shorten the average U.S. lifespan in 2020 by only about a year.

The research was conducted by a team at the University of California, Berkeley.

Seeking to put current COVID-19 mortality rates into historic, demographic, and economic perspectives, the team calculated the consequences of U.S. lives lost to COVID-19 in 2020 using two scenarios.

One was based on a projection of 1 million deaths for the year, the other on the more likely projection of 250,000 deaths.

Their findings conclude that 1 million deaths in 2020 would cut three years off the average U.S. life expectancy, while 250,000 deaths would reduce lifespans by about a year.

That said, without the societal efforts that have occurred to lessen the impact of COVID-19, there could have been 2 million deaths projected by the end of 2020, a reduction of the average U.S. lifespan by five years, the researchers pointed out.

Their estimated drop in life expectancy is modest, in part, because 250,000 deaths is not a large increase on top of the 3 million non-COVID-19 deaths expected for 2020, and because older people, who typically have fewer remaining years of life than others do, represent the most COVID-19 fatalities.

Still, while COVID-19 mortality rates remain lower than those of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the coronavirus epidemic could be just as devastating as the longer-lasting HIV and opioid epidemics if mitigation efforts fail, the researchers said.

The team says the death toll of COVID-19 is a terrible thing, both for those who lose their lives and for their family, friends, colleagues, and all whom their lives touched. Those are real people, not abstract statistics.

But the population perspective helps put this tragedy in a broader context. As scientists work to contain this epidemic, it is important to know that people have been through such mortality crises before.

Goldstein’s and Lee’s measures are based on factors that include a current U.S. population of 330 million, age-specific death rates, and the economic valuation of saved lives.

One author of the study is UC Berkeley demographer Ronald Lee.

The study is published in PNAS.

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