US Life Expectancy Dropped By Biggest Amount Since WWII In 2020

(Photo by TAMI CHAPPELL/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
Font Size:

Life expectancy in the United States fell by the biggest amount since World War II, according to data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Life expectancy at birth fell from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported. The agency attributes three-quarters of the decline to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has directly contributed to the death of more than 600,000 Americans and triggered further ripple effects on the healthcare system.

One such ripple effect, according to some experts, is an increase in overdose deaths. 2020 saw the highest number of overdose deaths on record in the U.S., three-quarters of which were caused by opioids. Drug overdoses accounted for more than one-third of all unintentional injury deaths, according to the NCHS. (RELATED: New York Reaches $1 Billion Settlement With Major Opioid Distributors)

Changes in life expectancy have typically been very gradual in the United States, and the number rose consistently from the mid-20th century until 2014. It declined beginning in 2014, until ticking back up the past two years before the pandemic.

2020’s life expectancy is the lowest since 2003, according to the NCHS. The decline was not as substantial elsewhere in the world: according to Dr. Stephen Woolf of the Center on Society and Health at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, life expectancy only dropped by 0.22 years between 2018 and 2020 in the United States’ peer countries.

Despite the impact of the pandemic, heart disease remained the biggest killer of Americans in 2020, according to the CDC. The decline in life expectancy in 2020 didn’t hit all populations equally. Latino Americans, who previously had higher life expectancies than other racial groups, saw a drop of three years. Black Americans’ life expectancy dropped by 2.9 years, while white Americans’ decreased by 1.2 years.