Life expectancy in the United States dropped for the second straight year, government health officials reported Wednesday.
The decline from 77 years in 2020 to 76.1 years in 2021 puts U.S. life expectancy at the lowest level since 1996, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The drop of nearly one year in 2021, plus a drop of nearly two years in 2020, was the biggest back-to-back decline since 1921 to 1923, the agency said.
The COVID pandemic, drug overdoses and suicides are driving the decline, according to the CDC.
"COVID was the main factor. Other factors have been unintentional injuries, and those were mainly driven by unintentional drug overdose increases and other causes of death as well, probably related to the pandemic, but not directly to the virus," said Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which issued the report.
Looking ahead, Anderson doubts life expectancy will rebound in 2022 and suspects there may well be a further decline.
"It'll depend on what happens this fall and winter, whether or not we would see another decline in life expectancy," he said. "I don't really expect 2022 to be worse than 2021, but you never know with these things. In 2023, it's possible, if everything resolves, life expectancy bounces right back up. It's hard to know what the long-term consequences of COVID will be."
The biggest decline in life expectancy was among American Indian and Alaska Native people, down 1.9 years to age 65.2 in 2021, the same as overall U.S. life expectancy in 1944. Between 2019 and 2021, these groups lost 6.6 years in life expectancy, the investigators found.
Among white people, the decline in 2021 was one year — from 77.4 in 2020 to 76.4. Among Black people, the drop was nearly a year, from 71.5 years to 70.8 in 2021. In both groups, life expectancy in 2021 was the lowest since 1995.
After a four-year drop in life expectancy from 2019 to 2020, Hispanic people in the United States had a smaller decline in 2021 — 0.2 years — to 77.6 years. Among Asian people, life expectancy also dropped much less than a year, to 83.5 years, which is the highest life expectancy of any group included in the report.
The researchers also found:
"Life expectancy in the United States was declining even before the COVID pandemic and has declined further in consequence of it," said Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and president of the True Health Initiative in Tulsa, Okla. "The figures are now the lowest they've been for women and men alike, and most ethnic groups in over a quarter-century."
Although other causes of death contributed to the decline in life expectancy, Katz said he thinks the effects of the pandemic have been underrated. For example, COVID resulted in delayed medical attention for other conditions.
COVID death rates were often due in part to the poor health that many Americans carried into the pandemic, he said.
"Although the direct effects of COVID are abating now, a full rebound from this downward trend in American life expectancy requires a far more holistic view," Katz added. "We remain mired in pandemics of heart disease, hypertension [high blood pressure], obesity and diabetes; in poor mental health and addiction; and in disparities rooted in social determinants of health."
To do better, America needs "new efforts to cultivate health at its origins in diet and lifestyle," he said.
For more on living longer, head to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
SOURCES: Robert Anderson, PhD, chief, mortality statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; David Katz, MD, MPH, specialist, preventive and lifestyle medicine, and president, True Health Initiative, Tulsa, Okla.; Vital Statistics Rapid Release, National Center for Health Statistics, Aug. 31, 2022