COVID-19: US life expectancy falls to lowest level in almost 20 years

Life expectancy in the US fell by a year and a half in 2020 to 77.3 years, the lowest level since 2003, primarily due to the deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a United States health agency said on Wednesday.

It is the biggest one-year decline since World War Two, when life expectancy fell 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943, and is six months shorter than its February 2021 estimate, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

"Life expectancy has been increasing gradually every year for the past several decades," Elizabeth Arias, a CDC researcher who worked on the report, told Reuters. "The decline between 2019 and 2020 was so large that it took us back to the levels we were in 2003. Sort of like we lost a decade."

Deaths from COVID-19 contributed to nearly three-fourths, or 74 percent, of the decline and drug overdoses were also a major contributor, the CDC said.

The CDC last week released interim data showing that US drug overdose deaths rose nearly 30 percent in 2020.  The latest CDC report is based on provisional mortality data for January through December of 2020.

Racial, gender and ethnic disparities worsened during the period, the report said. Life expectancy for Black people fell by 2.9 years to 71.8 in 2020, the lowest level since 2000. 

Life expectancy for Hispanic males dropped 3.7 years to 75.3, the largest decline of any group.

The disparity in life expectancy between men and women also widened in 2020, with women now expected to live 80.2 years, or 5.7 years longer than men - six months more than two years ago. The data represents early estimates based on death certificates received, processed, and coded but not finalised.