COVID-19 drives largest decrease in US life expectancy since 1943

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In a new study from Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers found U.S. life expectancy decreased by 1.87 years between 2018 and 2020, a drop not seen since World War II.

Other countries also saw declines in life expectancy between 2018 and 2020, but the loss of life expectancy in the U.S. was 8.5 times that of the average for 16 peer countries.

The declines for minority populations were 15 to 18 times larger than other countries.

The U.S. death toll has surpassed 600,000, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. Excess deaths, which exceed the official count, may contribute to the impact of the pandemic.

Life expectancy trends in the U.S. were already very worrying, according to the team. Since the 1980s, improvements in life expectancy in the U.S. have not kept pace with peer countries.

Around 2010, life expectancy in America plateaued and then decreased for three consecutive years. It continued to climb in other countries.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the United States had among the world’s highest per-capita mortality rates.

The team called the 1.87-year decline in life expectancy “massive” by comparison. 1943 was the last time the US had such a large decrease in life expectancy.

Six countries in the study’s comparison group saw their life expectancy increase during 2020—places like New Zealand, Finland and Norway. Other countries did poorly: Italy and Spain saw losses in life expectancy. But none came close to the U.S.

The researchers say that in many ways, the U.S. has turned a corner in its response to COVID-19, but the data emerging on pandemic health disparities is urgent and valuable in helping understand the impact on our communities.

The life expectancy gaps between America and other countries and between racial groups are worrisome, and they hope the numbers serve as a wake-up call for the health care community and beyond.

The study is published in The BMJ. One author of the study is Steven Woolf, M.D.

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