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Experts See a “Shocking” Trend as U.S. Life Expectancy Declines for the Second Consecutive Year

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For as far back as we can recall, it has been practically an article of faith in America that children would outlive their parents – in other words, that each generation would live a longer and healthier life than the one that went before. But now, for the second year in a row, something has thrown a monkey wrench into that proud national narrative. Recent data is demonstrating conclusively that average American life expectancy isn’t rising, but declining.

We came across this troubling story in this recent edition of the online journal HealthDay.According to the article, average life expectancy took a hit in 2020, which of course was Year One of the COVID pandemic – and while the decline slowed in 2021, the trend line continued downward, despite hopes that widespread vaccine availability would reverse the pattern. As one health expert simply put it, “The news isn’t good.”

Average Life Expectancy Drops 4 Years Since 2000

Life expectancy in the United States is dropping, and the numbers are worrying.

“Specifically,” the HealthDay article states, “average U.S. life expectancy tumbled from 78.86 years in 2019 to 76.99 in 2020 (as this previous HealthDay article describes). It then fell by a smaller amount in 2021, to 76.60 years, the new report found.”

Of note, the notable difference in the 2021 numbers versus 2020 was in the area of racial differences. According to the article, “Losses in life expectancy among white Americans [in 2021] were largely responsible for that continuing trajectory, the new study found. In 2020, Black and Hispanic Americans were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic amid chronic health disparities.”

Some Researchers Blame Vaccine Resistance

Researchers are still searching for the cause of these numbers, but one theory being put forward is that vaccine hesitancy and a reluctance to follow pandemic restrictions—especially among white Americans in disproportionately-white states—could be a big factor.

Dr. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University stated in a news release about the recent studies, “We already knew that the U.S. experienced historic losses in life expectancy in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What wasn’t clear is what happened in 2021. To our knowledge this is the first study to report data for 2021, and the news isn’t good.”

He continued, “Early in 2021, knowing an excellent vaccine was being distributed, I was hopeful that the U.S. could recover some of its historic losses. But I began to worry more when I saw what happened as the year unfolded. Even so, as a scientist, until I saw the data it remained an open question how U.S. life expectancy for that year would be affected. It was shocking to see that U.S. life expectancy, rather than having rebounded, had dropped even further.”

New Variants Combine with Familiar Health Problems

Another major factor: the rise of fast-spreading variants of COVID, such as Delta and Omicron.”Deaths from these variants occurred almost entirely among unvaccinated people,” Woolf says, but he added that he doesn’t believe the variants are the key issue. He mainly blames people’s resistance to public health measures such as masking and social distancing mandates.

Sadly, other factors unique to the U.S. played further roles in our rising mortality rates during the pandemic, such as our high frequency of obesity and heart disease and the fundamental inequities in the American health care system.  “Not only did longevity drop further in the United States,” the article states, “but America fared worse than 19 other wealthy countries during the pandemic.”

U.S. Had Worse Outcomes than Other Wealthy Nations

The study analyzed the changes in life expectancy using official data from 2018 through 2020, along with provisional data from 2021 provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The modeling used has had high levels of accuracy in past trials.

The article adds, “The life expectancy decline for communities of color was huge in 2020 by all historical standards, but that did not continue in 2021.”

Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves said of the study’s results, “Yes, greater coverage of vaccination may have stemmed some of this suffering. But we also have had an overriding desire to put the pandemic behind us for over a year now in the United States, which shaped our decisions to forgo basic protections at a personal and community level, throwing us all into harm’s way.”

Rajiv: Results Show America’s Health Flaws

We asked Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions for his observations, and he had some strongly-held opinions. “This story is a national tragedy,” Rajiv says, “and a national scandal. How is it that the richest nation on earth can’t get it together when it comes to health care? Even in a pandemic year, the drop in life expectancy just should not happen. What’s going on here?”

Rajiv answers his own question. “The fact is that the U.S. spends more per capita on health care than almost any other industrialized nation on earth – roughly twice as much or more per person as Canada, Australia, or any European country except Switzerland. Clearly we’re doing a lousy job spending it well.”  (Editor’s note: you can find complete 2019 medical spending data here.)

“My strong advice,” Rajiv urges, “is to take preventive care seriously. Find a geriatric physician who understands the dynamics of aging and be diligent about diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle. You can’t change national statistics,” he says – “but you can change your own!”

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(originally reported at

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