"The motivation for this study was to determine whether the horrible drop in life expectancy that we documented in 2020 resolved or rebounded in 2021 or whether there was a continued decline. Unfortunately, we did not find good news," Woolf told NPR in an interview.
Surprisingly, while the 2020 drop in life expectancy hit Blacks and Hispanics hardest, that wasn't the case in 2021, the analysis found. Life expectancy among Hispanics didn't significantly change between 2020 and 2021, and life expectancy of Blacks actually inched up slightly -- by a little less than half a year.
In contrast, the life expectancy of whites fell by about a third of a year, mostly among white men.
"So what this tells us is that this continued decline in life expectancy that we see in the second year has been carried mainly by deaths in the white population," Woolf says.
It's unclear why this happened, but Woolf and others think it may be due in part to whites being more likely to live in states with fewer restrictions, so they let down their guard more, while often refusing to get vaccinated.
"The deaths that occurred in 2021 were a product not only of a lack of vaccination, which was a huge factor, but also being in places that didn't observe policies like masking and social distancing that prevented transmission of the virus," Woolf says.
Because the 2020 drop in life expectancy hit Blacks and Latinos so much harder, they still lost more ground overall in the two years since the pandemic began. Hispanics lost almost four years and Blacks almost three, compared to less than two for whites.
The 2021 drop also widened the gap in life expectancy between the U.S. and other wealthy countries, the analysis found. That was due primarily to lower vaccination rates in the U.S., researchers say.
Life expectancy only dropped by about a half a year in 2020 in countries like England, France and Germany, and then actually increased by about a third of a year in 2021, according to the analysis. So the gap between the U.S. and those countries grew from more than three years in 2019 to more than five years in 2021.
The 2021 drop came after U.S life expectancy plummeted in 2020, tumbling by almost two years -- the biggest one-year fall in U.S. life expectancy since at least World War II.
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