Biggest life expectancy drop since WWII

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.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I have to say that I don’t see the point of factoring extraordinary events like a pandemic caused by a novel virus into a life expectancy calculation. To me, the whole purpose of a LE calculation is to identify forseeable risks to life in order to mitigate them, but when you are in the middle of a surprising situation, you deal with today’s facts as they affect currently living real people, not some statistically generated theoretical newborn baby. If my house catches on fire, my life expectancy would probably drop a lot, but I don’t need to do that calculation to decide whether or not I should try to escape and call the fire department.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … COVID-19 accounting for about 11% of those deaths.

    And the other 89%? I suspect a severe c-virus undercount here, even more than the “deaths of despair”.

  3. says

    I’d like to see that broken down into red-state/blue-state. If the drop in expectancy is partly due to COVID-19 then states like Florida are going to look worse.

  4. says

    I have to say that I don’t see the point of factoring extraordinary events like a pandemic caused by a novel virus into a life expectancy calculation

    WWI was also an extraordinary event. I think the point of the exercise is to chart the effects of events and how we respond to them, though it would be interesting if they could be factored out.

  5. garnetstar says

    I think a lot of the despair is in jobs, as well. The change in America from workers doing jobs that at least had some kind of meaning--even working in a steel mill or tire factory, you had made something by the end of the day--to dead-end “service” jobs, which will always leave you in food and housing insecurity.

    So, a more meaningless work life that will never give you a stable future.

    I grew up in a small working-class town, where all the men worked in nearby tire factories (in Akron, Mano!) their whole lives. The salary was enough to own small houses, to live frugally, but securely and with stability. A very stable and thriving place. It’s gone now, of course. There’s a reason that people still want to be coal miners (a difficult and quite dangerous job.)

  6. mnb0 says

    “One day, the pandemic will go away”
    But climate change won’t. It might very well become the dominating factor within a few decades.

    “an alarming period of rising mortality”
    “basically catastrophic”
    Based on the assumption that the longer we live the better. That’s very doubtful anyway. Typical that it never gets discussed.

    “the class inequalities in the US will likely increase”
    Now this is something to worry about for several reasons, but decreasing life expectancy is not one of them.

  7. says

    The chaos in Libya, Nigeria, and Syria are arguably partly climate driven. The rich should expect to be hunted down and killed -- nobody will be afraid of them or willing to protect them any more. Its a meme that bears propagating: when the shit hits the fan it gets on everyone equally.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    The rich should expect to be hunted down and killed

    They do. Nobody worth a billion hasn’t thought this through and taken steps to ensure they and theirs are safe. Nobody worth a billion hasn’t thought through the fact that that billion won’t be worth anything if the economy collapses, and therefore taken steps to ensure they have other means to ensure their safety, means that are not dependent on being able to pay their security detail/private army in money. It’s for that reason that people who think it through will still be afraid of the really rich even after the economy has collapsed and their money is gone. Anyone worth a billion has more than anyone I know would even know how to spend, and you can guarantee they’ll find things to spend it on that you and I don’t even know about.

  9. John Morales says

    WMDKitty, pretty sure despair is not a choice.

    (They’re not causes, they’re effects)

  10. another stewart says

    @Pierce R. Butler
    With a population of 330 million and a life expectancy in the 70s one expects millions of deaths annually in the USA from all causes (with cancer and heart disease usually being the leading causes). If the population was in equilibrium the expectation would be between 4 and 5 million, but because of population growth the numbers are low. The official figures for COVID-19 deaths are 600,000+, spread over 18 months. 11% of deaths being due to COVID-19 is in the right ballpark, though it does strike me as possibly on the low side. (The real figure for COVID-19 deaths seems to be closing in one million.)

  11. Heidi L Nemeth says

    @2 And the other 89%? The number of excess deaths in 2020 over 2019 was about 500,000. The CDC counted 345,000 of all deaths last year (the 11%) as covid deaths. So a realistic maximum for covid deaths last year was about 500,000 . The other 89% of deaths last year were from the usual causes of death -- heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease…. Indeed, the CDC says heart disease was the #1 killer last year and cancer was the #2 killer. Covid was #3.

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