What COVID-19 did to U.S. life expectancy and where it ranks among causes of death
Officials say COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in America in 2020 and 2021, accounting for 1 in 8 deaths
As COVID-19 climbed the list of the leading causes of death in recent years, it also drove some changes to projections of how long people can expect to live.
COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in the United States in both 2020 and 2021, behind heart disease and cancer, according to data from the National Institutes of Health. Accidents and strokes rounded out the top five leading causes of death.
The findings, reported in the July 5 issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, is based on analysis of national death certificate data.
The novel coronavirus accounted for 1 in 8 deaths during the 20-month period from March 2020 to October 2021, the researchers said. In 2021, among those ages 45-54, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death, while it was No. 2 among those 35-44. Among those 85 and older, COVID-19 was the second-leading cause of death in 2020, but dropped to third in 2021, “likely because of targeted vaccination efforts in this age group,” according to a National Institutes of Health press release.
The journal article said that the pandemic also indirectly impacted other reasons people died, including heart disease, accidents, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. It said COVID-19 drove up the numbers between 2019 and 2020, “possibly because people were reluctant to seek medical care for fear of catching COVID-19.” The article noted other changes, as well, including people failing to have routine cancer screenings, which may show up in data in the future.
Because deaths in November and December 2021 were not part of the analysis, the researchers noted deaths from the omicron wave of the pandemic, which extended into early 2022, were not included.
Life expectancy drops
COVID-19 also reduced the life expectancy predictions for 2020, a study in PNAS found.
Its impact was particularly significant within Black and Latino populations, the journal reported. New projections say life expectancy for the average baby born in 2020 will be reduced by 1.3 years, with a greater reduction based on race/ethnicity.
“Consequently, COVID-19 is expected to reverse over 10 years of progress made in closing the Black-white gap in life expectancy and reduce the previous Latino mortality advantage by over 70%,” wrote University of Southern California researchers Theresa Andrasfay and Noreen Goldman. “Some reduction in life expectancy may persist beyond 2020 because of continued COVID-19 mortality and long-term health, social and economic impacts of the pandemic.”
The University of Colorado Boulder reported that life expectancy for Native Americans in the United States “dropped by a shocking 4.7 years during the COVID-19 pandemic, about three times that of whites and by far the most of any ethnic group.”
The study also found that in 2021, “while its peer countries around the world appeared to rebound from a historic 2020 dip in life expectancy, the U.S. experienced even higher death rates.”
Said lead author Ryan K. Masters, an associate professor of sociology at UC Boulder, “With the wide availability of vaccines in the United States, there was a lot of optimism that 2021 would look better than 2020. That did not happen. The U.S. didn’t take COVID seriously to the extent that other countries did and we paid a horrific price for it, with Black and brown people suffering the most.”
Besides Masters, study authors included Steven H. Woolf, from Virginia Commonwealth University, and Laudan Y. Aron, of the Urban Institute.
The trio said U.S. life expectancy decreased from 78.85 years in 2019 to 76.98 years in 2020 and 76.44 years in 2021, a net loss of 2.41 years. “In contrast, peer countries averaged a smaller decrease in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 (0.55 years) and a 0.26-year increase between 2020 and 2021, widening the gap in life expectancy between the United States and peer countries to more than five years,” they reported.
Lots of countries are reporting changes in life expectancy. For example, according to data released this week by its Office for National Statistics, life expectancy dropped in the United Kingdom. While it’s “too early to say with any certainty what impact coronavirus may have on long-term mortality trends ... it has undoubtedly influenced mortality,” Open Access Government reported.
Life expectancy at birth in England and Wales was 78.6 years for males and 82.6 years for females in 2020 — 1.2 years lower for males and 0.9 years lower for females than in 2019. “This data reflects very high mortality in 2020 during the coronavirus COVIC-19 pandemic,” that study said.
But officials in the United Kingdom still project that in the next 50 years, their life expectancy at birth will increase about 6.6 years for males and 5.5 years for females.