COVID-19 lowered life expectancy by more than a year in 2020, even worse for Blacks and Latinos

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — If you feel like 2020 was a lost year, you’re more right than you think. A new study finds the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over a year off the American lifespan. Researchers from USC and Princeton say life expectancy dropped even more for Blacks and Latinos, the largest single-year declines in over 40 years.

With COVID claiming more than 336,000 American lives last year, the study projects life expectancy will fall by 1.13 years. For a person born in America, the average lifespan will now sit at 77.48 years. This is the lowest American life expectancy has been since 2003.

For minority communities, the news is even worse. Researchers estimate the average African-American lifespan dropped by 2.1 years in 2020, down to 72.78 years. For Latinos, who had been enjoying an average lifespan stretching into the 80s, study authors estimate their life expectancy fell by a staggering 3.05 years!

The average Latino-American lifespan now figures to be around 78.77 years. That’s just over the average white American’s life expectancy of 77.84 years.

“Our study analyzes the effect of this exceptional number of deaths on life expectancy for the entire nation, as well as the consequences for marginalized groups,” says study author Theresa Andrasfay, a postdoctoral fellow at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, in a university release. “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.”

Explaining the ‘Latino paradox’

Researchers say the estimates coming out of 2020 are particularly “shocking” in regards to Latino-Americans. They explain that Latinos have consistently had lower death rates than whites when it comes to chronic diseases and COVID-19; a fact scientists call the “Latino paradox.”

“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,” says study co-author Noreen Goldman from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. “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 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 adds. “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.”

The pandemic’s once-in-a-century impact of life expectancy

The study estimated U.S. life expectancy at birth and again at age 65 for the country’s total population in 2020. Researchers then examined four different scenarios, one where COVID-19 never existed and three including the pandemic. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation provided the projections for total COVID deaths in those scenarios.

Among the deaths reported to the National Center for Health Statistics, 21 percent have been Blacks and 22 percent Latinos. The team explains that life expectancy is an important measure of a country’s health. Now in 2021, it can also help scientists to measure the impact of COVID-19 on survival rates.

Leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, the average American lifespan had been generally improving at a small but steady rate. Only between 2015 and 2017 did the U.S. see a steady decline of 0.1 years during that three-year window. Researchers blame this rare event on spikes in “deaths of despair” related to the opioid epidemic, alcohol use, and suicide.

COVID-19, however, produced a drop 10 times that amount in a single year. The last time a pandemic affected life expectancy to such a degree was the 1918 influenza pandemic. Researchers say the average lifespan fell between seven and 12 years during that crisis.

“While the arrival of effective vaccines is hopeful, the U.S. is currently experiencing more daily COVID-19 deaths than at any other point in the pandemic,” Andrasfay says. “Because of that, and because we expect there will be long-term health and economic effects that may result in worse mortality for many years to come, we expect there will be lingering effects on life expectancy in 2021.”

“That said, no cohort may ever experience a reduction in life expectancy of the magnitude attributed to COVID-19 in 2020,” the researcher concludes.

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.