COVID-19 causes largest decline in American life expectancy since WWII, VCU study finds

Coronavirus

In this Friday, March 27, 2020 photo, William Samuels delivers caskets to the Gerard Neufeld Funeral Home during the coronavirus pandemic in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Life expectancy in the United States fell by nearly two years between 2018 and 2020, the country’s biggest decline since World War II, according to a new Virginia Commonwealth University study. 

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, estimates American life expectancy dipped from 78.74 years to 76.87 years in that span.

The research cited the coronavirus pandemic as the leading cause, but some high-income countries had their life expectancies rise during that time as the U.S. saw a sharp drop. The U.S. has the highest recorded death toll from COVID-19, which surpassed 600,000 in June, according to a Johns Hopkins University database.

An analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Black people and Latinos in the United States are dying at higher rates than white residents. In Virginia, Black people represent 20% of the state’s population but make up a quarter of the COVID-19 deaths with reported race and ethnicity.

Data on life expectancy for Black and Hispanic Americans revealed the stark reality of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on those communities. 

Steven Woolf, the lead author of the study and the director emeritus of VCU’s Center on Society and Health, said it was “jolting” to realize the pandemic’s effect on life expectancy for Black and Latino people in the U.S. 

“It was reasonable to expect that life expectancy might decrease [with the pandemic], and we’ve seen historically big disparities for people of color,” Woolf said in an interview. “All of that was expected. What we didn’t expect was the magnitude of it.” 

Between 2018 and 2020, the life expectancy for Black Americans fell by 3.25 years, 2.4 times the decline for white Americans (1.36 years) in that time. This “reversed years of progress,” Woolf noted, as the gap between Black and white Americans went from just under four years (3.92) in 2018 to nearly six (5.81) in 2020. 

Hispanic Americans, a group that historically has had a longer life expectancy than the white population, saw the biggest decline in life expectancy between 2018 and 2020: nearly four years (3.88). This sharp dip drove the gap in life expectancy between Latinos and white people from 3.2 years in 2018 to just 0.68 years in 2020. 

For the study, Woolf worked alongside researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Urban Institute. The data used came from the National Center for Health Statistics and estimates for 2020.

“Progress made between 2010 and 2018 in reducing the gap in life expectancy between Black and White populations in the US was erased between 2018 and 2020,” the study asserts. “Life expectancy in Black men fell to 67.73 years, a level not seen since 1998. The US Hispanic life expectancy advantage was erased in men and nearly disappeared in women.” 

The pandemic has not only brought racial disparities in health care into focus but has exacerbated existing inequalities, including food insecurity, job instability and the loss of health care coverage. 

Asked about the ways to possibly reverse the trend in U.S. life expectancy, which was declining before COVID-19, Woolf said his suggestions before the pandemic wouldn’t be too different from now. “Invest more in our people, help those low- and middle-income people by investing in education, producing good jobs,” he said. 

Woolf added that policies and regulations to address racial inequalities should be pushed and implemented, telling 8News that systemic racism is “baked in our society” and will require people to face those issues head-on.

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