The study, published in medRxiv, said U.S. life expectancy went from 78.86 years in 2019 to 76.99 years in 2020, during the thick of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Though vaccines were widely available in 2021, the U.S. life expectancy was expected to keep going down, to 76.60 years.
In “peer countries” — Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England and Wales, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland — life expectancy went down only .57 years from 2019 to 2020 and increased by .28 years in 2021, the study said. The peer countries now have a life expectancy that’s 5 years longer than in the U.S.
“The fact the U.S. lost so many more lives than other high-income countries speaks not only to how we managed the pandemic, but also to more deeply rooted problems that predated the pandemic,” said Steven H. Woolf, MD, one of the study authors and a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, according to Reuters.
“U.S. life expectancy has been falling behind other countries since the 1980s, and the gap has widened over time, especially in the last decade.”
Lack of universal health care, income and educational inequality, and less healthy physical and social environments helped lead to the decline in American life expectancy, according to Woolf.
The life expectancy drop from 2019 to 2020 hit Black and Hispanic people hardest, according to the study. But the drop from 2020 to 2021 affected white people the most, with average life expectancy among them going down about a third of a year.
Researchers looked at death data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the Human Mortality Database, and overseas statistical agencies. Life expectancy for 2021 was estimated “using a previously validated modeling method,” the study said.