In a reasonably healthy society one would expect life expectancy to rise or at least approach a plateau as the limits to which we can extend life (assuming that there is a limit) get reached. Dropping life expectancy should be a source of serious concern since it implies that something is seriously out of whack. So the recent dramatic drop in life expectancy in the US has to be a cause for alarm.
U.S. life expectancy fell by a year and a half in 2020, the largest one-year decline since World War II, public health officials said Wednesday. The decrease for both Black Americans and Hispanic Americans was even worse: three years.
The drop spelled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is due mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic, which health officials said is responsible for close to 74% of the overall life expectancy decline. More than 3.3 million Americans died last year, far more than any other year in U.S. history, with COVID-19 accounting for about 11% of those deaths.
Black life expectancy has not fallen so much in one year since the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression. Health officials have not tracked Hispanic life expectancy for nearly as long, but the 2020 decline was the largest recorded one-year drop.
The abrupt fall is “basically catastrophic,” said Mark Hayward, a University of Texas sociology professor who studies changes in U.S. mortality.
Because many of the Covid-19 deaths were of older people, the impact on life expectancy was less than it might have been if they were of younger people, as happened during World War II, when the drop was three years. And it is much less than the drop during the 1918 Spanish flu which devastated younger generations.
David Leonhardt in his The New York Time newsletter of July 22, 2021 argues that the decline began before the pandemic because other disturbing factors are at play in creating what are called ‘deaths of despair’.
Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was mired in an alarming period of rising mortality.
For many, daily life lacks the structure, status and meaning that it once had, as the Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have explained. Many people feel less of a connection to an employer, a labor union, a church or community groups. They are less likely to be married. They are more likely to endure chronic pain and to report being unhappy.
These trends have led to a surge of “deaths of despair” (a phrase that Case and Deaton coined), from drugs, alcohol and suicide. Other health problems, including diabetes and strokes, have also surged among the working class. Notably, the class gaps in life expectancy seem to be starker in the U.S. than in most other rich countries.
Covid, of course, has aggravated the country’s health inequalities. Working-class Americans were more likely to contract severe versions of Covid last year, for a mix of reasons. Many could not work from home. Others received lower-quality medical care after getting sick.
One day, the pandemic will go away, at least one hopes. But given current attitudes opposing efforts to tax the wealthy more, providing universal free health care, and paying a living wage, the class inequalities in the US will likely increase, continuing the decline in life expectancy.