Life expectancy fell in the United States in 2021 for the second year in a row, driven by COVID-19 deaths, according to provisional data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the estimated American lifespan had shortened by nearly three years.
The most recent comparable decrease happened in the early 1940s, during the height of World War II, according to a CDC report to be released on Wednesday.
The nearly one-year decline in life expectancy from 2020 to 76.1 years marks the largest two-year drop in life expectancy at birth in close to a century, the CDC found in its report.
“It’s a dismal situation. It was bad before and it’s gotten worse,” said Samuel Preston, a University of Pennsylvania demographer.
CDC officials blamed COVID-19 for about half of the decline in 2021, a year when vaccinations became widely available but new coronavirus variants caused waves of hospitalizations and deaths.
COVID-19 was associated with more than 460,000 US deaths in 2021, according to the CDC.
Other contributors to the decline in life expectancy are longstanding problems: drug overdoses, heart disease, suicide and chronic liver disease.
While deaths from suicide had decreased in 2020, they were the fifth biggest contributor to the drop in overall life expectancy last year in the US. Suicide-related deaths were the third leading contributor to the decline in life expectancy for men.
The disparity in life expectancy between men and women also widened last year to the highest in more than two decades, with men now expected to live 73.2 years, nearly six fewer years than women.
Declines in life expectancy during the pandemic were also worse for some racial groups, and some gaps widened.
For example, life expectancy for American Indian and Indigenous Alaskan people saw a decline of more than 6.5 years since the pandemic began, and is at 65 years.
In the same span, life expectancy for Asian Americans dropped by about two years, and stands at 83.5.
Experts say there are many possible reasons for such differences, including lack of access to quality healthcare, lower vaccination rates, and a greater share of the population in lower-paying jobs that required them to keep working when the pandemic was at its worst.
Life expectancy is an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live, given death rates at that time.
It is “the most fundamental indicator of population health in this country,” said Robert Hummer, a University of North Carolina researcher focused on population health patterns.
US life expectancy rose for decades, but progress stalled before the pandemic.
Life expectancy in the US was 78 years, 10 months in 2019. In 2020, it dropped to 77 years. Last year, it fell to about 76 years, 1 month. The last time it was that low was in 1996.
The new report is based on provisional data. Life expectancy estimates can change with the addition of more data and further analysis.
For example, the CDC initially said life expectancy in 2020 declined by about 18 months. But after more death reports and analysis came in, it ended up being about 22 months.