Latest Drop in Life Expectancy Hit White People the Hardest

It fell in 2021 for the second year in a row
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 8, 2022 11:40 AM CDT
Vaccines Didn't Reverse US Drop in Life Expectancy
Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg walks among thousands of white flags planted at temporary art installation in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19.   (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

After 2020 saw the biggest one-year decline in US life expectancy since World War II, researchers hoped COVID vaccines would reverse the trend in 2021. Instead, life expectancy dropped for the second year in a row, according to a new study. Researchers say a 1.9-year drop in life expectancy in 2020 was followed by a 0.4-year drop in 2021, bringing average US life expectancy to 76.6 years, the lowest in at least 25 years, CNN reports. But unlike in 2020, the biggest drop was among white Americans. Life expectancy among Latinos was largely unchanged from the previous year and the life expectancy of Black Americans rose slightly after plunging by three years in 2020.

COVID-19 is the third most common cause of death in the US, behind only heart disease and cancer, and researchers say COVID deaths played a major role in the decline. "The finding that instead we had a horrible loss of life in 2021 that actually drove the life expectancy even lower than it was in 2020 is very disturbing," researcher Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells NPR. "It speaks to an extensive loss of life during 2021." He says the deaths 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."

The 2021 drop in life expectancy widened the gap between the US and other wealthy nations, where life expectancy dropped by a smaller amount in 2020 and rebounded the following year, researchers say. The gap between the US and 19 peer nations has grown from an average of around three years in 2019 to more than five years now, according to researchers. The study has not been peer-reviewed yet. Woolf says he and his colleagues plan to submit the study to a scientific journal, but they wanted to make the information available as early as possible, the Washington Post reports. (Read more life expectancy stories.)

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