Despite spending more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world, the life expectancy of Americans has fallen by more than two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The average life expectancy of an American is now more than five years lower than that of citizens in similar high-income countries, according to a new report.
The more than two-year loss since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been deeply racialized, say experts who further note that this current decline in life expectancy has not been experienced since 1943, “the deadliest year for Americans in World War II.”
The report, "Changes in Life Expectancy Between 2019 and 2021: United States and 19 Peer Countries" by researchers, Ryan K. Masters, Laudan Y. Aron and Steven H. Woolf, was shared Friday on the preprint server MedRxiv. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal.
“The decrease in U.S. life expectancy was highly racialized: whereas the largest decreases in 2020 occurred among Hispanic and non-Hispanic black populations, in 2021 only the non-Hispanic white population experienced a decrease in life expectancy,” the researchers noted.
In 2019, U.S. life expectancy was 78.86 years. That number fell to 76.99 in 2020 and 76.60 in 2021.
When compared to similar high-income countries over the same period, however, losses in life expectancy in peer countries were much smaller, and some even made gains.
The 19 peer countries include Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England and Wales, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
“In 2020, the United States experienced a much larger decline in life expectancy than did other high-income countries, with disproportionately large losses in its Hispanic and Black populations,” researchers said. “Although the introduction and availability of effective vaccines were expected to curb U.S. mortality rates in 2021, slow vaccine uptake and the spread of the Delta variant produced large surges in mortality.”
The data from peer countries reviewed in the study showed that England and Wales, as well as Northern Ireland, registered the largest loss in life expectancy between 2019 and 2021 of 0.93 years. Three countries, New Zealand, Norway and South Korea, gained life expectancy, the study shows, while the average gap in life expectancy between the U.S. and her high-income peers grew wider.
“The gap between U.S. life expectancy and the peer average rose to more than 5 years in 2021, further deepening a U.S. disadvantage in health and survival that has been building for decades,” contend researchers.
Researchers used official mortality data for 2018-2020 and provisional mortality data for 2021 to estimate changes in life expectancy in the U.S. population, in three U.S. racial/ethnic groups and in the 19 peer countries.
Researchers note that even though the reasons for the decline in life expectancy in the U.S. “are not entirely clear and likely have multiple explanations," racial inequality and vaccine hesitancy may play a role.
“Reasons for the surprising crossover in racialized outcomes between 2020 and 2021— in which Hispanic and black populations saw the largest drops in life expectancy in 2020 but increases in 2021, while white non-Hispanic Americans saw a further decline — are not entirely clear and likely have multiple explanations,” the researchers explain.
“Nonetheless, over the 2-year period (2019-2021), Hispanic and black populations clearly experienced much larger losses in life expectancy than did the white population. These patterns reflect a long history of systemic racism and its attendant injustices and inadequacies in how the pandemic was managed in the U.S.,” they add. “Although highly effective COVID-19 vaccines became available in 2021, their uptake was limited by public skepticism and inadequacies in distribution and access.”