Life expectancy in the U.S. fell by a year and half in 2020, the largest one-year decline since World War II, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported Wednesday. The numbers were worse for Black and Hispanic Americans, whose life expectancies plummeted by about three years. For Black Americans, that was the steepest year-over-year drop since the mid-1930s. The COVID-19 pandemic was responsible for about 74 percent of the overall decline in U.S. life expectancy, the NCHS found, and 11 percent of America's 3.3 million deaths.
"It's horrific," Anne Case, a professor emeritus of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, told The Washington Post. "It's not entirely unexpected given what we have already seen about mortality rates as the year went on, but that still doesn't stop it from being just horrific, especially for non-Hispanic Blacks and for Hispanics." Mark Hayward at the University of Texas called the abrupt fall in U.S. mortality "basically catastrophic."
Life expectancy is the estimated number of years a child born in any given year can expect to live, a fairly reliable statistical yard stick for a country's health. A child born in 2020 could expect to live for about 77 years, 4 months, the NCHS estimated, down from 78 years, 10 months in 2019. White life expectancy was 77 years, 7 months; Black life expectancy was 71 years, 10 months; and Hispanic life expectancy, historically above the national average, fell to 78 years, 10 months.
Life expectancy has generally risen a little each year since 1943, when it was 63 years, 4 months. The low point of the 20th century was 39 years, 1 month in 1918, during the last devastating global pandemic.
COVID-19 wasn't the only contributor to the fall in life expectancy. There were also a record-high 93,000 drug overdose deaths, which accounted for 11 percent of the drop in expected longevity, the NCHS reported. Other contributing causes included homicide, diabetes, and cirrhosis and other liver diseases. All in all, that tells a "pretty dark story about what's happening in the U.S.," Case said. Health experts expect the life expectancy numbers to rise again, but not this year and probably not for a couple of years after that.