How Life Expectancy Changed During the COVID-19

How Life Expectancy Changed

CU Boulder was involved in research that shows life expectancy in the U.S. dropped off at a rate that hasn’t been seen since World War II. DENVER — CU Boulder was involved in research that shows life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped off at a rate that hasn’t been seen since World War II.

How Life Expectancy Changed
How Life Expectancy Changed

Associate Professor of Sociology, Ryan Masters, was a part of the findings published in The British Medical Journal. It shows life expectancy in the U.S. dropped nearly two years between 2018 ad 2020. Here’s a part of our conversation with Professor Masters.

What did the research find?

The research involved comparing life expectancy with 16 other peer countries to the U.S. Data was gathered through National Center for Health Statistics to come up with life expectancy for last year.

“Compared to 16 other high income countries, the U.S. lost nearly two years of life expectancy. We haven’t seen a decline of that size since World War II,” said Professor Masters.

For some perspective, Masters also talked about the drop in life expectancy in other countries.

“In contrast other high income countries, lost life expectancy, although some saw an increase in life expectancy across this time,” said Masters, “On average they lost life expectancy but it was less than half a year, so the United States lost over about five times life expectancy compared to other high- income countries.

Even when we look at countries that lost the greatest amount of life expectancy, Italy was devastated, Belgium, experienced a whole year of life expectancy loss, the U.S. was still a vast outlier.”

What are the factors?

Understanding the numbers requires some historical perspective going back to the 1980s and how long people were living.  “It was continuing to increase,” said Masters, “It was just increasing at a slower rate compared to peer countries.”

In 2010, researchers said life expectancy in the U.S. essentially started to flatline. One reason was the opioid crisis.  Also, Masters said chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes, put the country in a more vulnerable position regarding co-morbidities and COVID-19.

“Despite what global preparedness of emergency deemed the U.S. to be, the number one most prepared for a global pandemic of this sorts,” Masters said those who were studying mortality trends in the U.S. knew all too well that the devastating loss of life would impact minority communities more.

The research found that the drop in life expectancy was steeper within minority communities, slipping anywhere from three to four years.

Masters said systemic racism, social and economic inequities and health care barriers are all factors.  While other countries saw most people who died from COVID-19 were older, the U.S. saw many people younger than 65 pass away.

“This pandemic was overlayed on top of long term disadvantages that the U.S. was suffering for decades,” said Masters.  “We left those populations vulnerable,” he added.

Future outlook:

Masters said life expectancy is more of a snapshot of what happened in 2020, not necessarily a forecast.  It also means life expectancy numbers can change, including vaccinations, lower COVID-19 case rates and more people surviving the virus.  The research involved looking at all deaths that happened in 2020.

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