Dance of Life

Once Again, American Life Expectancy Shrinks

It is a depressingly familiar story in America. We spend more on health and get less – the rich get richer and the sick get sicker. So now this means we’re getting less life expectancy. A new analysis by Ryan Masters, Laudan Aron, and Steven Woolf says that U.S. mortality increased last year. American life expectancy dropped for a second year due to the pandemic, while other prosperous countries saw a rebound because of the availability of COVID vaccines.

The analysis that produced these findings is a pre-print, so some of its details may vary in a final, peer-reviewed form.

A Shift in Racial and Ethnic Patterns

Changes in U.D. Life Expectancy 2021The first year of the COVID pandemic (2020) brought a record drop in U.S. life expectancy. In fact, it hit Black and Hispanic persons the hardest. But in 2021 there was a bit of a reversal. It’s not huge, but the new analysis suggests the 2021 drop in life expectancy was driven entirely by non-Hispanic White persons.

Why? Masters et al say that’s not entirely clear and likely results from many factors. One of those factors might be resistance to public health measures like masks and vaccines in communities with largely white populations.

Persistent Disparities

However interesting this nuance might be, the big picture remains unchanged, as the authors of this study explain:

“Over the 2-year period (2019-2021), Hispanic and Black populations clearly experienced much larger losses in life expectancy than did the White population. These patterns reflect a long history of systemic racism and its attendant injustices and inadequacies in how the pandemic was managed in the U.S.”

Obesity Plays a Role

This analysis makes it clear that American life expectancy took a bigger hit from the pandemic than life expectancy in other prosperous countries did. Part of it may be due to our stupid politics. When a person’s political affiliation gets in the way of their health, we have a deep problem.

But other factors predate the pandemic. Health disparities in the American population extend across American history. The shameful history of slavery is at the core of it.

On top of that, high rates of obesity were having an effect on life expectancy before the pandemic ever hit the scene. The pandemic simply made it more obvious, with obesity setting people up for bad outcomes.

American health policy has some serious work ahead to clean up both of these problems. The status quo is unsustainable.

Click here for the new paper from Masters et al, here and here for further perspective.

Dance of Life, painting by Edvard Munch / WikiArt

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April 11, 2022