Life expectancy in the U.S. reaches its lowest level in 25 years

Life expectancy fell in 2021 in the US for the second year in a row, standing at the lowest level since 1996, according to final data provided Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which points to the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in drug addiction and overdoses as the main culprits.

Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby is expected to live at birth, based on mortality rates that exist at the time. Even small decreases in life expectancy of a tenth or two tenths of a year mean that, at the population level, many more people die prematurely.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had “a domino effect by exacerbating the already very serious problem of overdose deaths,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The coronavirus ravaged an overburdened healthcare system, and death rates worsened in the second year of the pandemic, according to the CDC. The number of coronavirus deaths increased by nearly 20% from 2020 to 2021 and was again the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.

Low vaccination rate

Although deaths are down in 2022, the continued politicization of the health response has had a negative impact on many Americans’ decisions about vaccination and other mitigation measures. Approximately 14% of Americans and 36% of people over age 65 have received the latest booster, according to the CDC.

On the other hand, the pandemic spurred social changes that led more people to use drugs as an escape route and made it harder to get help. “Resources that used to be able to help people were no longer available,” Volkow said.

More than 106,000 people died from overdoses in 2021, an increase of nearly 16% over 2020. The rate of deaths from synthetic opioids – including fentanyl – cocaine and psychostimulants, such as methamphetamines, increased by more than 20%. This is in addition to a 30% increase in overdose deaths in 2020.

Overall, nearly 3.5 million deaths were recorded in the U.S. in 2021, 80,502 more than in 2020. The other leading causes of death included unintentional injuries, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and kidney disease. Last year there was an extremely mild flu season. For this reason, influenza and pneumonia dropped out of the top 10 causes of death in 2021.

All in all, the final mortality data are less dire than the CDC’s early estimates predicted, which suggested that life expectancy could have fallen by almost a full year in 2021. But it is still a very relevant figure, as life expectancy usually only varies between 0.1 and 0.2 years.

According to provisional data the CDC released in August (current data are not yet broken down by race), life expectancy for whites declined from 78.8 in 2019 to 76.4 in 2021.

Meanwhile, Hispanics, who saw a big (four-year) drop in life expectancy in 2020, improved the statistic in 2021 by a few months, to about 77 years and 7 months of average life. One element in their favor may have been better COVID-19 vaccination rates, experts say.

American Indians and Alaska Natives now have a life expectancy of 65.2 years, according to those data, down from 71.8 in 2019.

Age-adjusted mortality rates were lowest among Asian men and women, while they were highest – and increased significantly – among American Indian and Alaska Native men.

The death rate for black men declined slightly in 2021, but remained the second highest among demographic groups.

With information from CBS News

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