At a rate of 835 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020, COVID-19 has reduced life expectancy in the U.S. by nearly two years and usurped unintentional injuries as the third leading cause of death in our country. Heart disease remains number one, followed by cancer, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Life expectancy for the total U.S. population in 2020 was 77.0 years, a decrease of 1.8 years from 78.8 years in 2019—a decline not experienced in America since World War II, when many people lost their lives on the battlefield, said Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), in HealthDay magazine:
“Normally, we don’t see fluctuations of more than two or three tenths in a year,” he explained. “So, any sort of change of this magnitude is really quite unusual. And we can attribute the bulk of this decrease in life expectancy to COVID-19.”
According to a recent report, life expectancy for males decreased 2.1 years from 76.3 years in 2019 to 74.2 years in 2020. For females, life expectancy decreased 1.5 years from 81.4 years in 2019 to 79.9 years in 2020. During that same time period, the age-adjusted death rate – a person’s present age in comparison to how much life they have left to live – for the total population increased by 16.8%, from 715.2 deaths per 100,000 standard population in 2019 to 835.4 in 2020. Particularly troubling, the age-adjusted death rates increased in 2020 from 2019 by:
- 42.7% for Hispanic males
- 32.4% for Hispanic females
- 28.0% for non-Hispanic black males
- 24.9% for non-Hispanic black females
- 13.4% for non-Hispanic white males
- 12.1% for non-Hispanic white females
Overall, NCHS reported a total of 3,383,729 resident deaths in America in 2020—528,891 more deaths than in 2019. Moreover, COVID-19 was the underlying cause of 350,831 (10.4%) of those total deaths.
The study’s authors reported that the top 10 leading causes of death in America – heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, drug overdoses (and other unintentional injuries), stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, influenza, pneumonia and kidney disease – accounted for 74.1% of deaths in 2020. Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2019, but it fell off the top 10 list with COVID. Nonetheless, 46,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide in 2020, a decline of 1,500 deaths from 2019. On the positive side, infant mortality declined by 2.9% in 2020, a record low.
Shining a light on how far our nation has come
A 2016 report by The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. examined life expectancy rates going back to the turn of the 20th century, when life expectancy at birth was 46 years for men and 48 years for women. At the time, pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal infections and diphtheria were responsible for 34% of deaths.
By midcentury, life expectancy was about 66 years for men and 71 years for women. Interestingly, 15-year-olds in 1900 could expect to live 46.8 more years, whereas their counterparts in 2000 could expect to live 62.6 more years. What’s more, 60-year-olds in 1900 could expect to live 14.8 more years versus 21.6 more years in 2000.
The study concluded in 2010, when life expectancy had increased to 76 years for men and 81 years for women. The reports’ authors credited the increase in life expectancy to antibiotics, vaccines, safer cars, reduced smoking, increased incomes, anti-poverty programs and a 90% decline in infant mortality. The report emphasized that death occurs more frequently in old age and is most commonly associated with heart disease and cancer.
Will history repeat itself?
With the flu pandemic of 1918, life expectancy dropped from 51 to 39 but returned to 55 in 1919, Anderson explained.
“If COVID goes away in early 2022, we could see a very quick bounce back to what we would consider more normal life expectancy,” NCHS’s Anderson said. “But it’s impossible to predict, really. The next pandemic could be worse. And hopefully, it’s another 100 years before we see anything like this.”