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White Americans are dragging down U.S. life expectancy. Here’s why

April 8, 2022, 5:40 PM UTC

Life expectancy in the U.S. is now a full two years shorter than it was before the pandemic, according to a new study, reflecting the deadly toll of COVID across the country.  

It’s the second straight annual drop in life expectancy, though the decline in 2021 was less dramatic than in 2020, when the pandemic started and effective vaccines had not yet been developed. 

Overall, life expectancy across all groups dropped to 76.6 years in 2021, down from 77 in 2020 and 78.9 in 2019, according to the study. 

The decrease in U.S. life expectancy in 2021 was split heavily across racial lines, with white Americans bearing the largest brunt. Among white Americans, life expectancy dropped roughly a third of a year in 2021, whereas among Hispanic Americans there was a slight increase in life expectancy, and among Black Americans, it rose by 0.4 years.

Things were far different in 2020, when deaths from COVID-19 disproportionately impacted communities of color. In 2020, U.S. life expectancy dropped 3.7 years among Hispanic Americans and 3.2 years among Black Americans, the study found.

The authors of the study said the reasons for the “surprising crossover” in racialized outcomes between 2020 and 2021 were “not entirely clear and likely have multiple explanations.” But they speculated that vaccine hesitancy among certain populations could have been a factor.

“It’s hard to imagine that willingness to be vaccinated is not a piece of that puzzle,” Laudan Aron, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and coauthor of the study, told The Washington Post.

While life expectancy for white Americans declined 0.3 years in 2021, life expectancy for all Americans dropped by 0.4 years. This is likely caused by lower life expectancy rates among populations that the study’s authors said were too small for estimates to be done separately, such as Native Americans and Alaska Natives. 

The study, which was not peer-reviewed, noted that despite the racialized reversal in 2021, “Hispanic and Black populations clearly experienced much larger losses in life expectancy than did the White population” in the two years since the pandemic began.

Nearly 1 million Americans have died from COVID-19 during the two-year pandemic. Meanwhile, drug overdoses fueled by the opioid epidemic killed more than 100,000 Americans in 2021, a record. These are two of several factors that could have contributed to declining U.S life expectancy.

Among 19 other peer countries analyzed in the study, the U.S. experienced the largest decline in life expectancy over the last two years. Still, there is hope that things will improve in 2022. 

As of April 7, more than 77% of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, and roughly 66% of the nation has received at least two vaccines, according to data from the Mayo Clinic. 

And as COVID-19 cases continue to remain relatively low in 2022, the current seven-day moving average of new deaths decreased 14% compared to the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease for Control and Prevention. 

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