One expert likened the life-expectancy plunge to data not seen since World War II, and it is the largest gap between Black and white Americans since 1998.
(CN) — American life expectancy decreased by a full year in the first half of 2020, hitting its lowest point since 2006, as the Covid-19 pandemic burned through the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the findings Thursday in a first-of-its-kind report based on provisional vital statistics data, joining the annual and decennial national life tables that the agency typically publishes.
Life expectancy summarizes the mortality conditions in a given year, providing a baseline for health officials to track changes across populations and over time.
According to the latest data, pandemic-related deaths have deepened life-expectancy disparities along racial and ethnic lines that were already striking.
The CDC put the latest life-expectancy gap between Black and white Americans at six years — the largest since 1998. In addition to reporting on the three-year fall in the expected life spans of Black Americans, the CDC observed a nearly two-year drop in the lives of Hispanic Americans, another group whom white Americans statistically tend to outlive.
“This is a huge decline,” Robert Anderson, who oversees the numbers for the CDC, announced on Thursday. “You have to go back to World War II, the 1940s, to find a decline like this.”
The study from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics backs up what other researchers have been finding.
In an email, University of Southern California postdoctoral scholar Theresa Andrasfay called it “another important piece of evidence of the enormous mortality toll — and the large racial and ethnic disparities — of Covid-19.”
“While the virus is new, health disparities are not,” she continued. “Structural inequalities in the U.S. have resulted in both health and access to health care being very closely related to one’s race and socioeconomic status.”
Andrasfay was the co-author of a similar study on the subject that appeared last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While Andrasfay’s study did not specifically examine reasons why Black and Latino Americans have greater reductions in life expectancy due to Covid-19, she said, “we know that these groups are frequently employed in frontline jobs and have higher rates of some chronic conditions that increase the risk of mortality” from the virus.
To repair some of those inequities, as far as addressing Covid-19, equitable distribution of the vaccine is one way that can help.
“But broader, long-term solutions are needed to address these longstanding inequalities,” Andrasfay added.
The new stats on life expectancy aren’t necessarily permanent. Conditions change every year, and so life span expectations could bounce back as health care improves for Covid-19, and fewer people die from the disease.
But that may not happen right away. Deaths from Covid-19 are inching toward the half-million mark in the United States — more than 100,000 have died in 2021 alone — and more people are expected to die from the disease until the vaccine is widely distributed.
“There is also concern that those who have recovered from Covid-19 may have long-term health problems,” Andrasfay said, “and there may be health impacts of the current recession.”
International trends in life expectancy — and years lost due to Covid-19 — are also beginning to emerge.
A study in Scientific Reports, also published on Thursday, reported that more than 20.5 million years of life have been lost to Covid-19 around the globe.
The study found an average of 16 years lost per death, calculated by the difference between an individual’s age at death and their life expectancy. Using this determination, Covid-19 could be between 2 and 9 times worse than the average seasonal flu, the researchers found.
The CDC is calculating the number of excess deaths resulting from Covid-19, starting at the beginning of February 2020. The data show between 478,927 and 594,204 excess deaths across the country in the last 12 months.