THURSDAY, Feb. 18, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- In a sign that the coronavirus pandemic is cutting short the lives of Americans, a new government report finds that average life expectancy in the United States took a drastic plunge during the first half of 2020, particularly among Black and Hispanic people.
Overall U.S. life expectancy dropped to 77.8 years, down one full year from the 78.8 years estimated in 2019.
Declines were even greater for certain demographics. For example, average life expectancy decreased 2.7 years for Black people and 1.9 for Hispanic people between 2019 and the first half of 2020, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Life expectancy for white people decreased by an average 0.8 years.
To put those numbers in context, it made headlines when average U.S. life expectancy dropped by 0.2 years between 2014 and 2015, after years of steady increases.
The nearly three-year decline in life span among Black Americans is especially troubling, one expert said.
"These are enormous differences in life expectancy," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "It's a big deal to lose a year, but to lose three years, that's staggering."
The new statistics highlight the heavy impact that health care inequities have had on Black and Hispanic communities over the past year, experts said.
"During some of the spikes in the COVID pandemic, it became apparent that people of color in America had worse outcomes when infected with the COVID-19 virus," said Dr. Teresa Murray Amato, chair of emergency medicine with Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in New York City.
The CDC estimates life expectancy using death and birth records, producing a statistic that provides a reliable snapshot of Americans' overall health.
"Every day of life is precious," Benjamin said. "The way for people to think about this is that these were preventable deaths. Life expectancy is a statistic based on how long we thought people would live."
Blacks, Hispanics take biggest hits to longevity
Life expectancy varied much more widely when gender and ethnicity were taken into account:
Black male life expectancy dropped by 3 years (71.3 to 68.3)
Hispanic males lost 2.4 years of life expectancy (79 to 76.6)
Black females had a 2.3-year decline (78.1 to 75.8)
Hispanic females had a 1.1-year decline (84.4 to 83.3)
By comparison, white males had a decline in life expectancy of 0.8 years (76.3 to 75.5), while white women had a 0.7-year decline (81.3 to 80.6).
"For the overall U.S., it was a year lost. So then when you triple that for Black men, double that for Hispanic men, that's a problem," Benjamin said. "The whole nation was devastated, but it also tells us the enormous inequities we have in health just took us backwards."
Benjamin noted that during the pandemic the country lost more people than it did during the entire span of World War II, including deaths both in combat and on the home front.
"We had over 400,000 people die in the five-year period of World War II, and we've done that in one year," Benjamin said. "That should get people's attention. And it's not over yet."
People in Black and Hispanic communities have long had a more difficult time than whites affording and accessing medical care, said Dr. Juan Wisnivesky, chief of internal medicine for Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
During the pandemic, these communities also were less able to take part in infection control measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, Wisnivesky noted.
For example, folks were more likely to need to work away from home, and they were less able to maintain strict social distancing due to their living conditions, he explained.
"There's been an inequality in the burden of COVID, a burden that's being reflected in these numbers," Wisnivesky said.
Many factors at play
Life expectancy for all Americans likely also took a hit because the pandemic prompted people to forgo health screenings that would have caught potentially life-threatening illnesses, said Jesse Schold, director of the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute's Center for Populations Health Research.
Many people lost their jobs due to the pandemic. People in lockdown also were more likely to eat poorly, drink more alcohol and use drugs. Schold noted that overdoses have increased during the pandemic, a sign that progress has faltered in the nation's struggle with its opioid epidemic.
Further, a substantial number of people who did contract COVID-19 have suffered long-term health problems that could ultimately limit their life span, Schold added.
"I don't think necessarily we're going to be just as healthy this summer or fall, once -- hopefully -- all of the direct effects of COVID have been attenuated," he said. "We know there are a lot of consequences of COVID that are beyond direct mortality."
Schold cautioned that the CDC numbers are preliminary and only represent half a year, but added that, "It's something we need to be very vigilant about, partly because the long-term consequences of all this are going to take quite some time to evolve."
Experts concluded that American life expectancy could falter for years to come, based on the multitude of pandemic-related factors that affect health in ways direct and indirect.
Dr. Robert Glatter is an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He said, "The adverse impact of COVID-19 on life expectancy, while clearly apparent now, will continue to have its effects for decades to come. The rippling effects of COVID-19 are leaving a trail of death and destruction. We must do everything we can to intervene and break this deadly cycle."
The new report, by Elizabeth Arias and colleagues at the NCHS, was published Feb. 18 in the Vital Statistics Rapid Release.
The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics has more about life expectancy research.
SOURCES: Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director, American Public Health Association, Washington, D.C.; Teresa Murray Amato, MD, chair, emergency medicine, Long Island Jewish Forest Hills, New York City; Juan Wisnivesky, MD, DrPH, chief, internal medicine, Mount Sinai Health System, New York City; Jesse Schold, PhD, director, Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute's Center for Populations Health Research; Robert Glatter, MD, emergency medicine physician, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Vital Statistics Rapid Release, Feb. 18, 2021