Non-Hispanic Blacks show greatest declines.


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Life expectancy in the United States fell to the lowest level since 2006, according to estimates based on deaths from January through June 2020. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) calculated overall life expectancy for Americans at 77.8 years, a full year drop from 78.8 years in 2019.


Researchers at NCHS, however, cautioned that the analysis is based on provisional data that still awaits verification. It also covers only the first half of 2020 and will likely change as the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is evaluated. Both COVID-19 and a surge in drug overdose deaths are believed to be drivers of the decline. COVID-19 became the third leading cause of death in 2020, after heart disease and cancer. There may also be indirect effects of the pandemic on life expectancy due to missed preventative care or screenings, reluctance to seek medical care for fear of infection, or delays in receiving care at overwhelmed hospitals.


Still, the data show a markedly uneven impact among racial groups. For non-Hispanic Blacks, life expectancy dropped 2.7 years, from 74.7 in 2019 to 72 in the first half of 2020. For Hispanics, the decrease was 1.9 years (81.8 to 79.9) and for non-Hispanic Whites, it was 0.8 years (78.8 to 78). The subgroup with the greatest loss in life expectancy was non-Hispanic Black males-a full 3-year drop (71.3 to 68.3). Non-Hispanic Black females and Hispanic males also experienced significant declines: 2.3 and 2.4 years, respectively. Overall, males' life expectancy dropped 1.2 years, from 76.3 to 75.1, compared with females, who lost 0.9 years in life expectancy, from 81.4 to 80.5.


Life expectancy has steadily increased over the decades; the gap between non-Hispanic Blacks and non-Hispanic Whites had been narrowing since 1993, and Hispanics' life expectancy has exceeded that of non-Hispanic Whites since 2006. The new provisional data show a 37% narrowing of that gap, from 3 to 1.9 years.


The larger decreases in life expectancy for non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics in the first half of 2020 likely reflect already existing disparities in access to health care, as well as greater exposure to environmental risks-for example, having jobs that could not be performed from home and therefore increased the chances of contact with people infected with COVID-19.


Deaths from COVID-19 are expected to exceed 600,000 by summer 2021, even with ongoing vaccinations. And, in January and February, the daily number of COVID-19 deaths exceeded daily deaths from heart disease and cancer, making COVID-19 the number one cause of death in early 2021. These ongoing effects of the pandemic are likely to skew life expectancy calculations for some time to come. The variation among racial groups may also change-possibly for the worse-as data from densely populated urban areas infected in the second half of 2020 become available. Final life expectancy numbers for 2020 will be calculated in late 2021 or early 2022 when verified mortality data are available.


Lastly, and significantly, the provisional NCHS data also show a dramatic increase in reported drug overdose deaths-26.8% from September 2019 to September 2020-that appears to have affected the U.S. life expectancy calculations for the first half of 2020.-Joan Zolot, PA


Arias E, et al Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics; 2021 Feb. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/VSRR10-508.pdf; Cox C, Amin K. Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation; 2021 Feb 22. https://www.healthsystemtracker.org/brief/covid-19-is-the-number-one-cause-of-de.