A Jaw-Dropping Loss of U.S. Life Expectancy

Harlequin and DeathIt is nothing short of jaw dropping – U.S. life expectancy once again dropped by almost two years. This news comes from the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, which released provisional stats for 2021 today.

Up until 2014, the U.S. had seen steady rises in life expectancy. Then in 2015, we saw a small drop that marked the end of those steady rises. But that was nothing compared to what came with the pandemic. It hit Black and Hispanic communities first and hardest in 2020. Overall, life expectancy declined by almost two years from 2019 to 2020.

Now in 2021, while other high-income countries began recovering some of their lost ground in life expectancy, the U.S. saw it drop again.

Revealing Disparities

What this drop in life expectancy reveals is stark disparities that different communities suffer in their prospects for health and life. From the beginning of the pandemic, Black and Hispanic people have suffered higher higher infection and death rates. But the new data for 2021 puts a spotlight on a dismaying decline in life expectancy for Native Americans in 2021.

Abigail Echo-Hawk is director of the Urban Indian Health Institute. She explained that this is a function of social and economic disparities, not ethnicity:

“We’re not at risk because we’re Native. This is a virus that took advantage of the rampant health disparities that have been created by this country. That’s what this paper shows. We have to recognize it for what it is.”

It’s also worth noting that life expectancy dropped for the non-Hispanic White population more in 2021 than in 2020. Adherence to COVID precautions faded quickly in conservative White communities. Some health policy experts speculate that this may explain mortality trends in the White population.

Revealing Vulnerability to Chronic Diseases

U.S. Life Expectancy 1980 - 2021

While the shocking drop for two years is largely due to COVID, it would be foolish to ignore the vulnerability to chronic disease that this trend reveals. In 2015, we saw an end to steady progress in reducing deaths from heart disease. In the face of rising diabetes and obesity prevalence, this should not surprise us.

Dana Burr Gradly of the Erickson School of Aging Studies explains the connection between social disparities, chronic diseases, and the elevated vulnerability to COVID that we are seeing:

“If someone from a community experienced lifelong food insecurity, no proper access to primary care doctors and other adverse experiences, their immune response to a disease like COVID would be poor.”

A Failure of Health Promotion

Finger wagging about obesity and the chronic diseases that come with it has yielded nothing but an ever growing burden of chronic diseases. We need to finally acknowledge that untested presumptions about the health benefits of promoting healthy eating and active living are not good enough. We must seek evidence for health promotion strategies that actually yield better health.

Until we do, the health of Americans will continue to be vulnerable.

Click here for the new CDC report, here, here, here, and here for further perspective.

Harlequin and Death, painting by Konstantin Somov / WikiArt

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August 31, 2022

2 Responses to “A Jaw-Dropping Loss of U.S. Life Expectancy”

  1. August 31, 2022 at 12:01 pm, Anne said:

    Excellent article. The other significant contribution to the change in death rate trends, likely contributing to the change seen in 2015 and onwards, is opoid-related deaths.

  2. August 31, 2022 at 4:02 pm, Ted said:

    Without a doubt, you are correct.