An alarming new study found that life expectancy in America plummeted dramatically during the pandemic. The decline widened the life expectancy gap between the U.S. and other affluent countries, and the greatest decline occurred among Black Americans and Hispanics.
The study published Wednesday in The BMJ found that “The U.S. had a much larger decrease in life expectancy between 2018 and 2020 than other high income countries, with pronounced losses among the Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations.”
The study authors said that the “inequitable effects on racial and ethnic minority groups are likely the products of longstanding policy choices and systemic racism.”
According to NBC News, even the study authors were surprised at the results.
“I naively thought the pandemic would not make a big difference in the gap because my thinking was that it’s a global pandemic, so everybody is going to take a hit,” said Dr. Steven H. Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, lead author of the study. “What I didn’t anticipate was how badly the U.S. would handle the pandemic.”
The new research found that between 2018 and 2020, the life expectancy of Americans plummeted approximately 1.9 years, or 8.5 times the average decrease in 16 similar countries where the average decrease in lifespan was 2.5 months.
The average decrease in life expectancy for Black Americans was 3.25 years, and for the Hispanic population, the study found that the life expectancy fell by just under 3.9 years.
“These are numbers we aren’t at all used to seeing in this research; 0.1 years is something that normally gets attention in the field, so 3.9 years and 3.25 years is just horrible,” said Dr. Woolf, according to NBC News. “We haven’t had a decrease of that magnitude since World War II.
Woolf said that after World War II, life expectancy climbed in the U.S. until the 1990’s when it began to slow down, and statistics showed that American lifespans began to decline compared to other wealthy nations. However, in 2019, life expectancy increased by 1.5 months, just before the pandemic hit the country.
The new study analyzed data from the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Human Mortality Database, to determine the changes in life expectancy between 2018 and 2020 among white, Black and Hispanic Americans.
Woolf explained that the numbers do not predict how long a baby born in 2020 will live, but rather how the pandemic affected the death rate of the entire population. The expert added that COVID-19 will have long-term effects on the health of those born during the height of the pandemic because of the financial and social consequences left in its wake.
“This isn’t to say that the lifespan of a child born last year will be shortened to these predictions, but on average, we can expect that today’s children will be affected by this experience,” Woolf said, according to NBC News.
Until last year, the life expectancy for Hispanic Americans had been higher than for white Americans, but COVID-19 had a devastating effect on this community, as it did on Black Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics these groups were twice as likely to die from the disease as white Americans.
Woolf anticipated a larger decrease in life expectancy based on these figures, “but the scale of difference was horrific,” he said.
And experts warn we may continue to see racial and ethnic disparities in the aftereffects of the pandemic.
“We still have to pay attention to the social determinants of health that were occurring before the pandemic, which made Black and brown communities at a higher risk of dying of the coronavirus,” said Melissa S. Creary, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. “The root causes of comorbidity aren’t biological, they’re social.”
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