Huge drop in US life expectancy in 2020 and 2021

US life expectancy dropped nearly 3 years during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. The CDC has recently released US life expectancy estimates for 2021, finding a significant drop for the second year in a row. That decline – 77.0 to 76.1 years – took U.S. life expectancy at birth to its lowest level since 1996. The 2.7 year drop in life expectancy in 2020 – 2021 was the biggest two-year decline in life expectancy since 1921-1923.

I did a quick comparison with the UN Population Division’s latest estimates of life expectancy at birth in 2019, the last year before the pandemic (see World Population Prospects 2022). Countries with similar life expectancies around 76.0 to 76.2 included Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Iran and Peru.

In an earlier post, I examined excess mortality in the USA and its causes in the period 2000-2020 in comparison with a group of the five largest European countries: Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom (“Europe 5”). I found data for these countries and the USA for trends in life expectancy at birth (both sexes combined) for the period 2010-2021 from the EU, CDC, and UK national statistics. I also found data for Switzerland and Australia and have also included them in the graph below. Why?  Because these are the two countries I have lived in for substantial parts of my life, and also are two countries with very high life expectancies (2nd and 8th among WHO Member States).

Switzerland and Europe 5 both show a drop in life expectancy of a little under 1 year in 2020, followed by an increase in 2021, likely associated with the availability of covid vaccines and some improvements in treatment. Australia showed no visible impact of covid on the continued increase in life expectancy at birth. Studies of excess mortality in the covid period have found that Australia is one of the few countries where covid deaths were more than outweighed by reductions in causes of death such as seasonal flu and road injury associated with the lockdowns and social distancing.

In contrast, the USA has shown no improvement in 2021 but continued decline in life expectancy. Around half of this decline is due to the higher covid death rates in the USA, associated with political polarization around covid strategies, treatments and vaccination. I will examine the evidence for this in a following post. But other causes also contributed to this decline, particularly a continuing increase in drug overdose deaths (exceeding 100,000 deaths in 2021), heart disease (reflecting high levels of obesity), chronic liver disease (mainly due to alcohol), suicides and homicides. Life expectancy at birth in the USA in 2021 was nearly 8 years lower than that for Australia and Switzerland, and 6 years lower than that for the five largest European countries. These differences in life expectancy represent a massive difference in death rates. To put them in perspective, the complete elimination of cancer deaths in the USA would add around 4 years to life expectancy at birth for men and 3 years for women.

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