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Coronavirus will knock more than a year off average US life expectancy, study finds

The coronavirus pandemic is not only having an immediate impact in terms of the deaths of thousands of Americans, it’s also taking more than a year off the average US life expectancy.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences projects that COVID-19 will reduce US life expectancy in 2020 by 1.13 years, with a disproportionate number of deaths occurring among Black and Latino populations. When combined with provisional estimates of US death rates for the first half of the year, the data show a clear rise in the mortality rate as the pandemic took hold of the nation.

COVID-19 disproportionately affecting minorities

“Estimated reductions for the Black and Latino populations are three to four times that for Whites. Consequently, COVID-19 is expected to reverse over 10 years of progress made in closing the Black−White gap in life expectancy and reduce the previous Latino mortality advantage by over 70%,” according to the researchers of the study, Theresa Andrasfay of the University of Southern California and Noreen Goldman of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research.

“Black and Latino Americans have experienced a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality, reflecting persistent structural inequalities that increase risk of exposure to COVID-19 and mortality risk for those infected,” the study added.

Prior to the pandemic, the US had been making steady progress in terms of life expectancy although it had slowed down in recent years.

Life expectancy increased by nearly 10 years over the last half century — from 69.9 years in 1959, to 78.9 years in 2016. After 2010, life expectancy plateaued and in 2014 it began reversing, dropping for three consecutive years — from 78.9 years in 2014, to 78.6 in 2017. Drug overdoses, suicides, alcohol-related illnesses and obesity were largely to blame for this.

But the pandemic has set back all that progress, and also widened the gap between Black−White life expectancy.

“The Black and Latino populations are estimated to experience declines in life expectancy at birth of 2.10 and 3.05 years, respectively, both of which are several times the 0.68-year reduction for Whites. These projections imply an increase of nearly 40% in the Black−White life expectancy gap, from 3.6 years to over 5 years, thereby eliminating progress made in reducing this differential since 2006,” the study added.

CDC: US mortality rate rose significantly in second quarter

New data from the National Center for Health Statistics suggests that COVID-19 caused a significant jump in mortality in the US.

The age-adjusted all-cause mortality rate was 769 per 100,000 in the first quarter of 2020 and rose to 840 in the second quarter of the year. Comparatively, the death rate for the second quarter of 2019 was 702 per 100,000, the NCHS said.

While the report shows mortality rose significantly in 2020, it provides an incomplete snapshot of the pandemic since data for only the first two quarters are currently available.

Last week, CDC statisticians said COVID-19 was likely the third leading cause of death in 2020. They estimated there were between 316,252 and 431,792 excess deaths in all of 2020.

Heart disease is the top killer and cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US.

These estimates are based on all death records received and processed by NCHS as of November 27, 2020.

A multi-year effect

Andrasfay and Goldman’s study used Census Bureau data and data on actual and projected deaths from the pandemic of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and the National Center for Health Statistics. They also used various models and estimates for mortality rates.

“Our medium estimate indicates a reduction in US life expectancy at birth of 1.13 years to 77.48 years, lower than any year since 2003,” they said.

“This impact is about 10 times as large as the worrisome annual decreases several years ago that were attributed largely to drug overdoses, other external causes, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases,” the study added.

The US is already behind other wealthy countries in terms of life expectancy and the pandemic will worsen it.

“The US reduction in 2020 life expectancy is projected to exceed that of most other high-income countries, indicating that the United States — which already had a life expectancy below that of all other high-income developed nations prior to the pandemic — will see its life expectancy fall even farther behind its peers,” the study said.

The effects of the pandemic are expected to last well beyond 2020.

“Some reduction in life expectancy may persist beyond 2020 because of continued COVID-19 mortality and long-term health, social, and economic impacts of the pandemic,” the study added.

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