COVID-19 may shorten Americans' life expectancy at birth of by a median of 1.13 years, to 77.48 years—the largest single-year dip in at least 40 years and the lowest estimated lifespan since 2003, according to projections from a study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers, from the University of Southern California (USC) and Princeton University, also projected a decline in life expectancy at age 65 of 0.87 years. They caution that their projections are only best estimates and not definitive.
The decline is especially steep for black Americans, who could expect to die 2.10 years sooner, at 72.78 years, and for Latinos, who could see their lives shortened by 3.05 years, to 78.77. The researchers projected a much smaller decline for whites, at 0.68 years, for a life expectancy of 77.84 years. In contrast, the 1918-19 flu pandemic was estimated to have lowered life expectancy by 7 to 12 years.
As a result, the gap in life expectancy between black and white Americans could widen by 40%, from 3.6 to more than 5 years, a prediction that backs mounting evidence of COVID-19's disproportionate effect on disadvantaged populations. Blacks have consistently had a lower life expectancy than whites, but they had made larger relative gains in life expectancy than whites over the past 20 years.
If the projections come to pass, the novel coronavirus could undo many of the gains made in bridging racial life expectancy gaps, the authors said. For example, Latinos, who have consistently had lower death rates than whites, could see 2 years shaved off their survival advantage, for only a 1-year difference.
10 times the reductions seen in recent years
The authors used four death scenarios, one in which the coronavirus pandemic had not occurred and three that included COVID-19 death projections issued in October 2020 by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Of the deaths analyzed in which race and ethnicity were reported to the National Center for Health Statistics, 21% were of blacks, and 22% were of Latinos.
In the decades preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, US life expectancy had climbed slowly each year, except for the declines of 0.1 year in 2015 to 2017, which was partially due to increases among middle-aged whites from drug overdoses, including opioids and alcohol-related suicide and liver disease. But the COVID-19 reduction was roughly 10 times that of those observed in recent years.
Lead author Theresa Andrasfay, PhD, said in a USC press release that their study highlights the consequences of COVID-19 both across the nation and for marginalized groups. "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," she said.
A quick rebound unlikely
In the release, coauthor Noreen Goldman, DSc, of Princeton University, called the large drop in life expectancy for Latinos "shocking" given their lower rates of risk factors for COVID-19. "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," she said.
Goldman added that the largest drops in life expectancy for black and Latino populations are at least partially due to their disproportionate numbers of deaths at younger ages. "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," she said in the release.
The authors wrote that while there may never be larger projected reductions in life expectancy than the ones effected by COVID-19, they said that they don't expect a rapid return to prepandemic life expectancy, "due to the anticipated continued presence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, long-term detrimental health impacts for those who recovered from the virus, deaths from other health conditions that were precipitated by COVID-19, and social and economic losses resulting from the pandemic."