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COVID-19 linked to the largest decrease in life expectancy since the 1940s

Experts say non-white Americans were hit the hardest by the pandemic

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Photo (c) sankai - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University explored the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on consumers’ life expectancy

According to their findings, the pandemic was associated with a shortening of life expectancy by nearly two years, which was the biggest nationwide drop since 1943. However, for communities of color, life expectancy shortened by more than three years. 

“When the pandemic came, my naive assumption was that it would not have a big impact on the preexisting gap between the U.S. and peer countries,” said researcher Dr. Steven Woolf. “It was a global pandemic, and I assumed that every country would take a hit. What I did not anticipate was how badly the U.S. would fare in the pandemic and the enormous death toll that the U.S. would experience.” 

Understanding the impact of the death toll

To understand trends in life expectancy, the researchers analyzed data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Human Mortality Database. They also utilized Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center to understand what role pandemic-related deaths played in overall life expectancy. The team then compared the decreases in life expectancy in the U.S. to 16 other high-income countries around the world. 

Ultimately, the U.S. experienced the largest decrease in life expectancy between 2018 and 2020. The researchers explained that life expectancy has been shortening for some time, but a loss of 0.1 years each year is typical. This study showed that life expectancy decreased by 1.87 years between 2018 and 2020, and that number rose to more than three years for consumers of color. 

“It’s like nothing we’ve seen since World War II,” said Dr. Woolf. “1943 was the last time the U.S. had such a large decrease in life expectancy. 

In looking at non-white Americans, the life expectancy shortened considerably over the course of the pandemic. The study showed that life expectancy decreased by nearly four years for Hispanic Americans and 3.25 years for Black Americans. That was compared to 1.36 years for white Americans. The researchers believe these findings likely reflect a larger structural issue with the U.S. government that will outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The disorganized handling of the pandemic in the U.S. had a lot to do with governance,” Dr. Woolf said. “Our Constitution delegates public health authority to states, so we had 50 response plans. Many lives were lost because so many decisions were driven by politics and ideology. COVID-19 exposed a lot of the systemic problems that have been funneling the long-term decline in the health of Americans.” 

Comparing by country

It’s also important to consider how the U.S. fared compared to other countries. The study showed that the loss of life expectancy was more than eight times higher in the U.S. than in any of the other countries involved in the study, and it was as much as 18 times higher for people of color. 

“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,” said researcher Peter Buckley. “The life expectancy gaps between America and other countries and between racial groups reported in Dr. Woolf’s paper are worrisome, and I hope the numbers serve as a wake-up call for the health care community and beyond.” 

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