Life expectancy in US falls by one year amid coronavirus, most since WWII

The numbers represent the largest drop in life expectancy for Americans since World War II, when life expectancy fell 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943.

American flags sit on graves during Memorial Day following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Staten Island borough of New York US, May 25, 2020 (photo credit: JEENAH MOON/REUTERS)
American flags sit on graves during Memorial Day following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Staten Island borough of New York US, May 25, 2020
(photo credit: JEENAH MOON/REUTERS)
The average life expectancy of a United States citizen dropped by an entire year within the first half of 2020, showing the staggering effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on public health across the country, federal health officials have reported.
The numbers represent the largest drop in life expectancy for Americans since World War II, when life expectancy fell 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943.
"Provisional life expectancy at birth in the first half of 2020 was the lowest level since 2006 for both the total population (77.8 years) and for males (75.1), and was the lowest level since 2007 for females (80.5)," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in its analysis.
The estimate represents how long a baby born today will live, on average, based on the death rates of the specified period. In this case, the months between January and June of this year.
Minority populations suffered the largest falls in life expectancy, with non-Hispanic Black populations losing almost three years in total (2.7) and Hispanic populations declining by close to two years (1.9). The  non-Hispanic white population was also affected negatively, although not as severely, dropping by less than a year in full (0.8).
The longevity of non-Hispanic Black populations have consistently been lower than that of white populations in America throughout the years, and although the gap has been steadily closing between the two since 1993 - when it stood at 7.1 years - it climbed to it's largest gap in over 20 years (6.0) within the first half of 2020 - highlighting the disparities between the two groups.
In contrast, the gap between white and Hispanic populations decreased during the pandemic, bringing the difference in life expectancy between the two down to 1.9 years from 3.0 the year before. The Hispanic population in the United States has the longest life expectancy by ethnicity (79.9 years), and had been consistently leading this category since 2006.
The provisional life expectancy estimates presented in the CDC report only represent deaths recorded in the first six months of the year, primarily the first few waves of deaths across the country.
While it's common knowledge that 2020 was the deadliest year on record for Americans, the report does not reflect the entirety of the effects the coronavirus pandemic had on the US population, and that the figures may be worse than presented in the CDC analysis.
Death certificates from the first half of 2020 could still be coming in as some jurisdictions take longer to report - an inconsistency even more exacerbated by the pandemic with some reporting more often and others facing staffing shortages not so much - and the death tolls reported towards the end of the year could be worse than the first half.  
Death certificates for deaths from causes that require an investigation, such as infant deaths, external injuries and drug overdoses, take longer to complete than those not required. Additionally, there is seasonality in death patterns with winter months seeing more deaths than summer months, which is unaccounted for within the analysis.
At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, different geographical regions were effected differently than others within the first half of the year, which might disproportionately raise or lower the life expectancy in minority populations when comparing them to white rural populations.
"The life table estimates may disproportionately represent mortality in those regions, which are more urban and have different demographic characteristics than areas affected by the pandemic in the latter part of the yea," the CDC said. "As a result, life expectancy at birth for the first half of 2020 may be underestimated since the populations more severely affected, Hispanic and non-Hispanic black populations, are more likely to live in urban areas."
This is also the first time the CDC has reported on preliminary data, and displayed partial records to the public in order to assess the effect of excess deaths in 2020. Excess deaths represent the number between expected deaths and the actual number of deaths.
“The decline in life expectancy in the first half of 2020 is an aberration from the changes in life expectancy from year to year during the past two decades,” said Elizabeth Arias, one of the CDC report’s authors.
Separate health officials note that this report not only highlights the deadly impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on the US population - not just stemming directly from infections - but also accounting deaths attributed to cancer, disease, overdose and other health complications, which can be attributed to the mismanagement of the health crisis, according to the Associated Press.
“I would expect the impact on life expectancy to persist or, more likely, to become even more pronounced as data from the second half of 2020 are factored in,” said the chair of the department of population health at NYU Langone Health Marc Gourevitch. Gourevitch was not involved in the research.
Gourevitch added that the economic impact of the pandemic will further slow the speed at which life expectancy returns to normal in a post-pandemic world.


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