US Life Expectancy Falls to 77.3 Years, Lowest Since 2003

Kimberly Redmond  |

US life expectancy at birth fell by a year and a half in 2020 to 77.3 years — the lowest level since 2003, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data published on Wednesday. 

Overall, the US had its largest one-year decline since World War II, when life expectancy fell 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943, provisional data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) showed. 

COVID-19-related deaths are the main reason for the drop, accounting for nearly 75% of the decline in life expectancy. Of the 3.3 million deaths recorded in the US last year, 11% were caused by coronavirus-related complications, the CDC said.

Drug overdose deaths also fueled the decline, the CDC said. Last week, the agency reported that fatal overdoses jumped nearly 30% in 2020 to 93,331, the sharpest annual increase in at least three decades.

Wednesday’s report also highlighted an increase in homicides and diabetes, which together accounted for about 5.5% of the decrease in life expectancy. Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis accounted for nearly 2.5% of the drop.

Other Key Findings

Public health experts believe the disparity for Black Americans and Hispanic Americans may have been caused by lack of access to strong healthcare, poor living conditions and a greater portion of those populations holding low-paying jobs that required them to continue working through the pandemic. 

The CDC did not disclose data for other races and ethnicities. 

Dr. Anne Case, a professor emeritus of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, told The Washington Post, the data tells a “pretty dark story about what’s happening in the US.” 

"It's horrific," Case said. "It's not entirely unexpected given what we have already seen about mortality rates as the year went on, but that still doesn't stop it from being just horrific, especially for non-Hispanic Blacks and for Hispanics.”

Life expectancy numbers will bounce back, but it may take a few years, public health experts told The Associated Press. 

“Life expectancy has been increasing gradually every year for the past several decades,” Dr. Elizabeth Arias, a CDC researcher who worked on the report, told Reuters.  

“The decline between 2019 and 2020 was so large that it took us back to the levels we were in 2003. Sort of like we lost a decade,” Arias said.

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