Life expectancy declines recorded in 2020 as the U.S. battled its first year of the coronavirus pandemic were “experienced disproportionately” among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black Americans, according to a study published Wednesday by JAMA Network Open.
The study’s review of life expectancy drops from 2019 to 2020 in 22 high-income countries found the U.S. decline was largest at an average of 1.87 years. The 21 other high-income nations had an average decrease of about 0.58 years.
Earlier studies have attributed the pandemic to steeper drops in life expectancy averages than normal. One study released last year by researchers at Oxford University said COVID-19 was to blame for the largest life expectancy decline since World War II. In the U.S., preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found racial and ethnic disparities in declines during the first year of the pandemic, with the average gap between white and Black Americans expanding to about six years.
A Johns Hopkins University virus tracker estimated as of Wednesday that more than 987,000 people had died in the U.S. after contracting COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Hispanic and Latino Americans are 1.8 times as likely to die of COVID-19 as non-Hispanic white Americans, while non-Hispanic Black Americans are 1.7 times as likely, according to the CDC.
The U.S. life expectancy decline in 2020 is “large and highly racialized,” researchers wrote. While the average life expectancy of non-Hispanic white Americans dropped by about 1.38 years, data for Hispanic Americans showed a drop of 3.7 years while data for non-Hispanic Black Americans showed a drop of 3.22 years. Together, the three groups account for more than 90 percent of the U.S. population, researchers wrote.
“The decrease in US life expectancy was experienced disproportionately by Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations,” researchers wrote, adding the data was “consistent with a larger history of racial and ethnic health inequities resulting from policies of exclusion and systemic racism.”
While earlier studies assessing 2020 mortality data have relied upon provisional numbers, researchers wrote their study “to our knowledge, is the first to be based on official death counts.” Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine’s Center on Society and Health, University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Sociology and the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center said they assessed those official death counts for their study in January.
The U.S. has a history of recording a lower average life expectancy than other high-income nations, a trend that dates to the 1980s when the average life expectancy in the U.S. began “increasing more slowly than in peer countries.” While other high-income countries reported life expectancy increases over the last 10 years, the U.S. “remained stagnant” and even “decreased for 3 consecutive years in 2014 to 2017,” researchers wrote. The latest mortality data from 2020 “substantially” enlarges that “preexisting gap,” they said.
Declining life expectancy averages among Americans have been linked in part to drug overdose deaths and chronic diseases, though researchers noted “systemic vulnerabilities” in the nation’s social, economic and health care arenas may also factor in. With these variables at play, the U.S. “entered the COVID-19 pandemic in a fundamentally weakened state,” researchers wrote.
Data on American deaths “included not only those attributed to COVID-19 but also non-COVID deaths associated with social and economic disruptions of the pandemic, along with inadequate or delayed care of acute emergencies and chronic illnesses and behavioral health crises that fueled a record increase in fatal drug overdoses,” the study said.
Larger declines in life expectancy averages among Hispanic Americans and non-Hispanic Black Americans “reflect their higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 and vulnerability to conditions causing non-COVID deaths,” researchers wrote.
The extent to which American life expectancy averages changed during the second year of the pandemic will remain uncertain until finalized mortality data for 2021 has been released, according to researchers.
Newsweek reached out to the CDC for comment.