U.S. Life Expectancy Falls for the First Time in Over a Decade—And Black and Latinx Individuals Lose the Most

Photo: Getty Images / SDI Productions
Life expectancy in the United States has fallen for the first time in over a decade, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These findings come from a new report from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Deaths from COVID-19, which account for two-thirds of excess deaths in 2020, are the main reason for this decline.

Using provisional data collected in the first six months of 2020, researchers found that the overall life expectancy at birth for the U.S. population was 78.8, one year less than it was in 2019. In the first half of 2020, the life expectancy at birth for men was 75.1 years (1.2 fewer years than in 2019); for women, it was 80.5 (slightly less than a year's difference from 2019).

The decreases are even starker for Black and Latinx people. Between 2019 and the first half of 2020, life expectancy at birth decreased 1.2 years for Hispanic women, 2.3 years for non-Hispanic Black women, 2.4 years for Hispanic men, and 3.0 years for non-Hispanic Black men.

NCHS reports that the estimates of the U.S. life expectancy fall during the first half of 2020 occurred in part because of the worsening of racial and ethnic mortality disparities driven by the pandemic. CDC data through January 30, 2021, shows that Black and Latinx individuals are dying of COVID-19 at rates that are, respectively, 1.9 and 2.3 times higher than that of non-Hispanic white individuals.

"Regardless of Hispanic origin, life expectancy for the [B]lack population has consistently been lower than that of the white population," reads the report. "But the gap between the two races had generally been narrowing since 1993 when it was 7.1. The gap of 6.0 observed in the first half of 2020 is the largest since 1998." Essentially, the pandemic has set Black and Latinx people's health back decades.

Note that these figures are provisional, meaning they are early estimates based on death certificates received, processed, and coded but not finalized by NCHS. (Death certificate information may be revised and additional death certificates may be received until around six months after the end of the data year.) Additionally, this data represents deaths from the first half of 2020, so it does not reflect the entirety of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, seasonal differences in death patterns (more people tend to die in the winter, for example), and the geographic nature of where COVID-19 was most prevalent during the first half of the year may skew the data.

"The life table estimates may disproportionately represent mortality in those regions, which are more urban and have different demographic characteristics than areas affected by the pandemic in the latter part of the year," reads the report. "As a result, life expectancy at birth for the first half of 2020 may be underestimated since the populations more severely affected, Hispanic and non-Hispanic [B]lack populations, are more likely to live in urban areas."

However, it remains clear that racial health inequities have led to disproportionate deaths among Black and Hispanic communities. What isn't clear is what policy makers intend to do at the federal and state levels to address this stunning disparity.

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