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Life expectancy in the U.S. down again in 2021, CDC agency says

New provisional data for 2021 shows COVID-19 hit life expectancy projections hard, creating shortest expected lifespan since 1996

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Illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

A baby born in 2021 had a life expectancy a year shorter than that of a baby born in 2020. The decline took overall U.S. life expectancy from 77 to 76.1 years — the shortest expected lifespan since 1996.

That’s according to new provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics, one of the agencies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It marks a smaller drop in the projected lifespan than that projected between 2019 and 2020, which fell 1.8 years. Taken together, the decrease in predicted longevity for the two years is the biggest drop since 1921-1923, the agency reported.

The report, “Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for 2021,” said that non-Hispanic Native Americans and Alaska natives, who are counted together as one group, saw the biggest decline in life expectancy, losing just under 2 years in the calculations between 2020 and 2021. Their life expectancy for 2021 is 65.2 years, which the CDC compared to the life expectancy of the entire American population back in 1944 — and a drop of nearly seven years from the projection at birth for 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which hit native populations very hard, is largely responsible for the decline in predicted lifespan, the CDC said.

In fact, the report said that across categories, declines in life expectancy since 2019 are largely the result of the pandemic, which has killed more than 1 million people in the United States, according to data collected by The New York Times.

The second-biggest drop for 2021 was the life expectancy of non-Hispanic white people, which declined a full year to 76.4 years.

Life expectancy for non-Hispanic Blacks dropped from 71.5 years in 2020 to 70.8 years in 2021.

Those were the shortest life expectancies for both groups since 1995, the report said.

For Asians who are non-Hispanic, life expectancy at birth in 2021 was the highest of any group, at 83.5 years.

Among Hispanics, life expectancy at birth in 2021 was 77.6 years.

“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.”

There are, of course, other ways than race to report on life expectancy. And the report — as it always does — found a great deal of difference between males and females, though life expectancy for both declined. For women, life expectancy at birth dropped .8 years to 79.1 years. For men, it dropped a full year to 73.2 years.

According to the report, “The disparity in life expectancy between men and women grew in 2021 from 5.7 years in 2020 to 5.9 years in 2021. From 2000 to 2010, this disparity had narrowed to 4.8 years, but gradually increased from 2010 to 2019 and is now the largest gap since 1996.”

The fact that women tend to live longer than men overall seems contradictory, given a report from The World Bank which the Deseret News wrote about in May.

Its 2019 data showed that births are “gender-biased” toward boys most places around the globe, with nearly 105 boys born for every 100 girls worldwide.

But after birth, “boys seem at least statistically to be more fragile than baby girls in the earlier years.”

The report said that’s called the sex ratio — and it has been “largely stable” for many years.

The new life expectancy report breaks down other death causes that contributed to the overall decline in life expectancy at birth in 2021 compared to 2020.

Besides COVID-19, which was deemed responsible for three-fourths of the decline overall, causes include heart disease (responsible for 4.1% of the decline), chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (3%) and suicide (2.1%)

Among men, close to half the decline in life expectancy over the year was due to COVID, followed by unintentional injuries, suicide, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and homicide.

Among women, more than half of the decline was attributed to COVID-19, followed by unintentional injuries, heart disease, stroke and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.