The average life expectancy of people in the United States dropped for a second consecutive year in 2021, with the decline to 76 years and one month representing a fall of almost a full year from 2020, according to a government report released on Wednesday.
Among racial groups in the US, Asians had the highest life expectancy at 83 years and six months.
In the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the estimated US life span was shortened by nearly three years. The last comparable decrease happened in the early 1940s, during World War II.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials blamed the coronavirus for about half the decline in life expectancy in 2021, a year when vaccinations became widely available but new virus variants caused waves of hospitalizations and deaths.
Other contributors to the decline are long-standing maladies: drug overdoses, heart disease, suicide and chronic liver disease.
The report, prepared by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, said the number of suicides increased last year by about 2,000 to 48,000. The suicide rate rose as well, from 13.5 per 100,000 people to 14.1－about where it was in 2018.
Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might be expected to live, given death rates at that time. It is “the most fundamental indicator of population health in this country”, said Robert Hummer, a University of North Carolina researcher.
Life expectancy in the US had risen for decades, but progress stalled before the pandemic.
It was 78 years and 10 months in 2019. In 2020, it dropped to 77 years, and last year fell to 76 years and one month. The last time life expectancy was that low was in 1996.
“Even small declines in life expectancy of a tenth or two-tenths of a year mean that on a population level, a lot more people are dying prematurely than they really should be,” Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics, told The New York Times. “This signals a huge impact on the population in terms of increased mortality.”
Life expectancy for Native Americans and Alaska Native people saw a decline of more than 6.5 years－the highest of any group－since the pandemic began and is at 65 years.
The decline among Native Americans was driven by higher COVID-19 death rates than in 2020, unintentional injuries, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.
For Asian Americans, the figure of 83 years and six months represents a decline of about two years.
Life expectancy for women in the US dropped by about 10 months, from just under 80 years in 2020 to slightly more than 79 in 2021. For men, it fell a full year, from about 74 years to 73.
Deaths attributed to COVID-19 were the main reason given for the overall decline. The second-largest contributor was accidental injuries－primarily from drug overdoses, which killed a record 107,000 people in the US last year.
“It is distressing to see a continuing negative impact of drug overdoses on the life expectancy of Americans,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told CNN. “These deaths often occur in young adults and therefore represent a tragically high number of years of life lost and devastating impact on individuals, families and communities.”
White Americans saw the second-biggest drop among racial and ethnic groups, with life expectancy falling by one year, to 76 years and five months. African Americans had the third-largest decline, falling more than eight months, to 70 years and 10 months.
Globally, according to the World Bank Group, in 2020, the latest year for which figures were available, Japan had the highest life expectancy in the world at 84.6.
In that year, US life expectancy was 77.3 years or 54th in the world. The figure for China, where life expectancy has continued to rise, stood at 77.1 years, or 59th in the world.