Data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that U.S. life expectancy has once again fallen, with COVID-19 a primary culprit. The life span that could be expected for someone born in 2021 fell to 76.1 years, the lowest since 1996. For males, 73.2 years could be expected; for females, the expectation is 79.1 years.
The decline of 0.9 year in life expectancy between 2020 and 2021 pushed the overall drop between 2019 and 2021 to 2.7 years. Decades of gains in this key measure of overall health and societal progress have been wiped out, with some racial/ethnic groups hit particularly hard.
The non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) population experienced the largest drop, from 67.1 in 2020 to 65.2 years in 2021, which equals the total U.S. life expectancy in 1944. The non-Hispanic White population had the second greatest decline (77.4 to 76.4), while life expectancy for the non-Hispanic Black population declined from 71.5 to 70.8 years. The Hispanic population saw a decrease from 77.9 years to 77.7 years, the lowest since that series started in 2006. The life expectancy for Asians remains the longest at 83.5, although down from 85.6 in 2019.
The 2021 decline was driven by increases in mortality due to COVID-19 (50.0% of the negative contribution), unintentional injuries (15.9%), heart disease (4.1%), chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (3.0%), and suicide (2.1%). The decline would have been worse except for lower mortality from influenza and pneumonia (38.5%), chronic lower respiratory diseases (28.8%), Alzheimer’s disease (18.3%), perinatal conditions (6.3%), and Parkinson’s disease (2.3%).
Clearly there are multiple factors in many cases, with COVID-19 often being the proximate cause of death for someone also afflicted with another condition such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. Thus, the data shouldn’t be interpreted as indicating sustainable improvement in these chronic conditions.
The increase in deaths due to unintentional injuries (primarily drug overdoses) is particularly troubling. Such deaths contributed to increased rates in younger population segments. They were the leading cause – even higher than COVID-19 – contributing to the decline in life expectancy for the Hispanic population (31.2%) and were second for non-Hispanic Black (22.7%), non-Hispanic AIAN (21.3%), and non-Hispanic White (11.8%) populations.
In addition to the incalculable human toll, these outcomes have profound economic effects, both in tightening an already strained labor market and escalating health-related costs. As COVID-19 reaches a more endemic stage and more and better treatments are available, death rates should subside. Reversing the tragic upward trend in overdoses is imperative. A prosperous and forward-looking nation should be characterized by longer lives. In fact, it is the very essence of progress. There is much to be done. Stay safe.
Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com), which has served the needs of more than 2,500 clients over the past four decades.