Life expectancy in US decreased in 2021, analysis shows

Researchers find slow vaccine rollout and Delta variant led to 'large surges in mortality'

US Army veteran William Craig waits to see if he has a reaction after receiving a Covid-19 booster vaccine and an influenza vaccine at the Edward Hines Jr VA Hospital in Hines, Illinois.  Getty Images / AFP
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Life expectancy in the US, which dipped dramatically in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, declined once again in 2021 despite the introduction of vaccines, analysis has shown.

The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, predicts the average American will live to 76.60 years old versus 76.99 years in 2020. Since the onset of the pandemic in 2019, life expectancy has dropped by 2.26 years.

It is the largest decline since the Second World War, researchers noted.

More than 984,000 Americans have died from coronavirus, data from Johns Hopkins University show.

Researchers hypothesised that slow distribution and scepticism negated the positive effects of the vaccines.

“Although the introduction and availability of effective vaccines were expected to curb US mortality rates in 2021, slow vaccine uptake and the spread of the Delta variant produced large surges in mortality,” the study found.

The decline in life expectancy was “heavily racialised”, researchers added.

In 2020, Hispanics and black Americans saw the sharpest decline in life expectancy. There was a reversal last year, however, as Hispanics and black Americans saw increases while white Americans experienced a further decline.

Despite the increase last year, Hispanic and black populations have faced disproportionately large life expectancy decreases.

“Over the two-year period between 2019 and 2021, US Hispanic and non-Hispanic black populations experienced the largest losses in life expectancy, reflecting the legacy of systemic racism and inadequacies in the US handling of the pandemic,” researchers said.

Hispanic and black populations faced a decline in life expectancy of 3.65 and 2.80 years, respectively, since 2019, compared to 1.72 years for white populations.

The study, which analysed provisional death counts, noted that 19 “peer countries” — nations with a similar socio-economic standing — experienced a decline of life expectancy of about 0.57 years in 2020 and an increase of 0.28 in 2021.

“The US mortality experience during 2020 and 2021 was more severe than in peer countries, deepening a US disadvantage in health and survival that has been building for decades,” researchers said.

The gap between American life expectancy and peer countries rose to more than five years in 2021.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Urban Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Colorado, Boulder, was published online on Thursday on the MedRxiv preprint server.

The server, owned by the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, is a platform for researchers to share and receive feedback on their work before publication.

Updated: April 08, 2022, 9:18 PM