The coronavirus pandemic — which killed more than 336,000 people in 2020 — will shorten Americans’ life expectancy at birth by 1.13 years to 77.48 years, according to University of Southern California and Princeton University researchers. That is the largest single-year life-expectancy decline in at least 40 years.
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates that declines in life expectancy among Black and Latino communities are even starker. For Blacks, researchers project a life expectancy shortened by 2.10 years to 72.78 years; for Latinos, it’s shortened by 3.05 years to 78.77 years.
Whites are also impacted, but their projected decline is much smaller — 0.68 years to 77.84 years.
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“The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate effect on the life expectancy of Black and Latino Americans likely has to do with their greater exposure through their workplace or extended family contacts, in addition to receiving poorer health care, leading to more infections and worse outcomes,” study author Theresa Andrasfay, a postdoctoral fellow at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, said in a statement.
Adding to the concern: The overall gap in life expectancy between Blacks and whites is projected to widen to 40% — from 3.6 years to more than five years — which is further evidence of COVID-19’s disparate impact on minority populations, researchers say.
Meanwhile, Latinos, who have consistently experienced lower mortality than whites, could see their more than three-year survival advantage over whites reduced to less than one year
“The huge decline in life expectancy for Latinos is especially shocking given that Latinos have lower rates than the white and Black populations of most chronic conditions that are risk factors for COVID-19,” study co-author Noreen Goldman, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of Demography and Public Affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, said in a statement. “The generally good health of Latinos prior to the pandemic, which should have protected them from COVID-19, has laid bare the risks associated with social and economic disadvantage.”
The study’s authors estimated life expectancy at birth and at age 65 for 2020 for the total U.S. population and by race and ethnicity. They used four scenarios of deaths — one in which the COVID-19 pandemic had not occurred and three others that include COVID-19 mortality projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington.
“The bigger reductions in life expectancy for the Black and Latino populations result in part from a disproportionate number of deaths at younger ages for these groups,” Goldman added. ”These findings underscore the need for protective behaviors and programs to reduce potential viral exposure among younger individuals who may not perceive themselves to be at high risk.”
Researchers also noted that before the COVID-19 pandemic, annual improvements in life expectancy in the United States had been small but rarely declined. The last major pandemic to significantly reduce life expectancy in a short period of time was the 1918 influenza pandemic, when life expectancy dropped by seven to 12 years.