US saw biggest drop in life expectancy since WWII due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

A new study published in the British Medical Journal on Thursday found that life expectancy in the U.S. decreased by nearly two years between 2018 and 2020. It’s the largest decline since World War II.

The nation’s overall mortality rate fell in 2019 due to reductions in heart disease and cancer deaths. And life expectancy inched up — by several weeks — for the second straight year in 2019, according to data released on Dec. 22, 2020, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But then the life expectancy in the U.S. dropped a staggering full year during the first half of 2020. Scientists say the sharp decline is largely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Researchers also noted that Black and Hispanic groups saw the greatest dip in life expectancy compared to other groups of people. 

"Evidence of disproportionate reductions in life expectancy among racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., such as the disparities reported here, draws attention to the root causes of racial inequities in health, wealth, and wellbeing," study authors noted. 

The main cause of the life expectancy dip was due to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who died from the novel coronavirus, but also the "disruptions produced by the pandemic," study authors wrote. 

The grim reminder of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the global death toll this year from the virus has already eclipsed 2020’s death toll.

As of June 25, more than 3.9 million people around the world have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

Globally, approximately 1.8 million people were killed by the virus in 2020. So far this year, more than 1.9 million people have already lost their lives to the deadly disease as of June 20. 

RELATED: COVID-19’s global death toll this year has already surpassed 2020’s count

A recent report from Pew Research Center published last week found that the novel coronavirus caused an estimated loss of nearly 5.5 million years of life in the U.S. 

Pew researchers say that COVID-19 contributed to more lost years of life for Americans than all accidental deaths combined in a typical year. 

Pew researchers say COVID-19 deaths dwarfed deaths by accidents, stroke, diabetes, liver disease and Alzheimer’s. 

Cancer and heart disease are the only causes of death that caused a loss of life greater than COVID-19, according to provisional data from the end of 2019 and some of 2020.

In order to reach the findings, Pew researchers say they compared life year's loss to COVID-19 in 2020 with data of other mortality rates in 2019 because detailed analysis of deaths for 2020 is not yet available.

"It’s important to note that the estimated number of life years lost to COVID-19 in 2020 is not based on a full calendar year of data," Pew researchers said.

Researchers added that the COVID-19 pandemic killed many Americans who otherwise might have expected to live for years — even decades — longer. 

This is because life expectancy increases with age, researchers say. The United Nations World Population Prospects explain that while babies born in the U.S. today typically can expect to live to be 79, Americans who are 65 today can expect to live to be 85.

RELATED: COVID-19 pandemic’s death toll could shorten life expectancy in US by as much as 3 years

"A 65-year-old who dies from COVID-19 might ordinarily have expected to live until 85 – a difference of two decades, or roughly a quarter of the average American’s total expected life span at birth," Pew researchers said.

Minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing nearly three years and Hispanics, nearly two years, according to preliminary estimates released on Feb. 18, 2021 from the CDC.

"This is a huge decline," said Robert Anderson, who oversees the numbers for the CDC. "You have to go back to World War II, the 1940s, to find a decline like this."

Other health experts say it shows the profound impact of COVID-19, not just on deaths directly due to infection but also from heart disease, cancer and other conditions.

"What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year. ... I would expect that these numbers would only get worse," said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco.

Life expectancy is how long a baby born today can expect to live, on average. In the first half of last year, that was 77.8 years for Americans overall, down one year from 78.8 in 2019. For males it was 75.1 years and for females, 80.5 years.