U.S. life expectancy falls for 2nd year in a row

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.

"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.

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11 Responses:

  1. Florian says:

    What confuses me most about the US American obsession with "race", er, "ethnicity", is how unspecific it looks. Where are the stats about those of East Asian descent? where to slot in a person with Chechen ancestors, who came from the Caucasus region, are they "Caucasian", i.e. "whites"? Are Arabs to be counted as "Hispanics"? Are Irish Catholics "Hispanics"?

    If a break-down along state borders works better, as indicated in the article, why insist on using this "ethnic" classification? Would income class be an interesting indicator to look at, or would that be Communism?

    Is it like the Imperial Units thing? If you don't grow up with it, you just don't get it?

    We Europeans do this "race" thing, too, of course, but we don't usually use it in scientific or official publications. I still remember the "wtf Caucasians" moment when my SO was reading her first psychology paper from some US university.

    Anyway, stay sane and safe.

    • Elusis says:

      All of those questions you're asking ("just asking?") have answers. Enjoy your Google.

    • nooj says:

      Here are some of those answers.

      Race/ethnicity is rather unspecific, it's true. Still, it separates a country as big as the US into sensible populations for healthcare purposes--"sensible" meaning that the populations have statistically significant differences in their risk of disease and response to treatments.

      For instance, in the US, Black people have a higher susceptibility to high blood pressure and inflammatory diseases than Whites, and also they respond better to treatment. So we could predict even in March of 2020 that Black people would have worse outcomes from Covid than Whites, and we could predict that a vaccine would have a big positive effect in Black populations.

      The question of what groupings to use evolves over time, as the healthcare profession tries to understand and follow rates of disease in populations. For instance, children of Chinese immigrants in the US tend to have rates of disease a lot like other Americans, even ones with Chinese parents! The parents in this example still had rates of disease similar to Chinese people living in China. That is, if you grew up in the US, your rate of disease looks American; if you grew up in China (even if you live in the US now), your rate of disease looks Chinese. So the healthcare profession started using "country of origin" as a way to separate populations in addition to race/ethnicity. As I recall, that turned out to be true only for poorer families; richer ones did not see a generational change in health.

      For what it's worth, the US Federal minimum categories for data on race have been stable for quite some time. (I think this is still current):

      1. The respondent is asked to choose one of the following two ethnicities: Hispanic or Latino, Not Hispanic or Latino. (This question must be asked first, before the next question.)

      2. The respondent is asked to choose one or more races from among the following five categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White.

      I don't know what hospital systems use as their standard in addition to the above minimums. I can say that race and ethnicity have been sliced and diced every which way, and if there were better, more reliable population groupings of race and ethnicity alone, we would know about it.

      Breakdowns along states in the US is less about race and more about reporting and data collection: different states have different reporting requirements and reporting quality and it's hard sometimes to compare them. For instance, cause of death seems simple, but is a contentious metric! A lot of state datasets have just one cause of death (eg, heart attack or cancer), without any complications listed (eg, diabetes or kidney failure or Covid positive); newer databases have several complications listed. Do you attribute a death to Covid if they had Covid a year ago? Do you attribute a death to Covid if they died on a ventilator in the ICU in April 2020 but Covid isn't listed as a cause of death? How do you compare two states, if one of the states steadfastly refuses to report Covid test results? The fewer decisions like that that a researcher has to make, the easier it is to interpret their results.

      Yes, of course income and class has a huge impact on health and outcomes. Sometimes we combine that with race and call it "socioeconomic status". For another example, see the "Healthy Worker effect": people with jobs tend to be healthier than people without jobs. They started out healthy enough to work, they probably have healthcare access through their work, and they are more likely to seek preventive care. Non-workers are less likely to have these. If you want to have some fun with this, look up the so-called "Hispanic paradox".

      To my mild shame, I don't know as much about European healthcare research and reporting, so I can't speak to why breakdowns by race/ethnicity are uncommon to you.

      If you want to read more, try the Wikipedia articles on "Social determinants of health" and "Race and health". As usual, they're not great treatises, but they're decent.

  2. Jim says:

    It's the THIRD year in a row. Thank you very much.

  3. bmj says:

    In contrast, the life expectancy of whites fell by about a third of a year, mostly among white men.

    The quoted article seems to attributing this to COVID, but there's not mention of suicide data. For example:

    * The rate of suicide is highest in middle-aged white men.
    * In 2020, men died by suicide 3.88x more than women.
    * White males accounted for 69.68% of suicide deaths in 2020.

    (Unless, of course, the American Society for Suicide Prevention is now considering the deaths of un-vaccinated people by COVID to be suicide.)

    The NPR article also doesn't consider the high mortality rates due to drug overdoses over the course of the pandemic.

    My point here isn't to argue that COVID isn't real, or the mortality rates are artificially inflated, or any other theory you might hear on Fox News or Right Wing Twitter, but rather to point out the author of the NPR article found a hammer, and now sees everything out there as a nail.

  4. Florian says:

    I was being rude. Enjoy your certitude.

  5. Netluser says:

    I thought US life expectancy had been continually going down since it was first reported as doing so in 2014-2015 (because of opioids) - apparently it went up and broke the chain somewhere? Otherwise, the headline should've been "7th year in a row".

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