The life expectancy curves of a country are the story of its history. The 1918 flu, the Great Depression, and World War II were visible on the chart for the United States. Now, the pandemic leaves a new notch for history. Life expectancy at birth fell again in 2021 for the second consecutive year, down to 76.1 years, according to provisional data released this Wednesday by public health authorities. In the first two years of the pandemic, the decline has been 2.7 years, the sharpest since 1943, when it fell from 66.2 to 63.3 years in the middle of World War II.
Life expectancy at birth measures how many more years on average newborns can expect to live if the patterns of mortality in a given year are maintained for the rest of their lives. The drop to 76.1 years leaves life expectancy at the lowest level since 1996, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. These are levels not seen since that year for both men (whose life expectancy has fallen to 73.2 years) and women (79.1 years). That six-year difference between the sexes is also the largest since 1996.
The pandemic, which has left more than a million dead in the United States, more than in any other country in the world, has not hit everyone equally. In the United States, the American Indian population and Alaskan natives have been hit in a very special way, the group in which it has fallen most dramatically. For them, it now stands at 65.2 years, after a cumulative decline of 6.6 years between 2020 and 2021. The life expectancy of a Native American is now what the average American had in 1944.
Life expectancy loss has also been greater among Hispanics (4.2 years) and African Americans (4 years) than among non-Hispanic whites (2.4 years) and Asians (2.1 years). The excess of deaths in these two years of the pandemic has reduced the life expectancy of men (3.1 years) more than that of women (2.3 years).
The 1918 flu
Despite the tragedy of the coronavirus and the sharp deterioration in statistics, it is far from what happened with the 1918 flu, the misnamed Spanish flu. In that year, life expectancy sank drastically, going from 50.9 to 39.1 years, always according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Even so, a movement in life expectancy measured in years, such as that of 2020 and 2021, reflects a very strong rebound in mortality.
The decrease in life expectancy is the balance between the increase in mortality from specific causes and the decrease in others. Obviously, covid has been the main cause of the decline, with half of the negative contribution, followed at a great distance by accidents and drug overdoses (grouped under the chapter of unintentional injuries), heart attacks and suicides. In addition to its direct effect, it is more difficult to measure how covid has indirectly affected the treatment of other diseases due to the saturation of health services.
On the other hand, mortality from common flu and pneumonia and respiratory diseases not associated with covid has decreased, surely due to prevention measures such as the use of masks or social distance, imposed by the coronavirus, but beneficial to avoid other diseases. Mortality due to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and that derived from complications in the health of newborns have also decreased.
The sharp drop in life expectancy for two consecutive years further distances the United States from other Western countries. Chronic health coverage problems, obesity and relatively high homicide rates place the country far from the levels of Canada, Australia, Japan and the most developed European countries, where life expectancy is above 80 years ( in Spain in 2020 it was 82.4 years). The US now registers levels similar to those found in 2019 (before the pandemic) in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, China or a good part of the countries of South America.
The data published by the National Center for Health Statistics are provisional, early estimates based on death certificates received, processed and coded, but not definitive. Death certificate information may be reviewed, and additional death certificates may be received up to approximately six months after the end of the year. The variations of the definitive data with respect to the provisional ones are not usually great in the main aggregates.
Source: EL PAIS