Public Health Watch: COVID-19 Pandemic Has Led to 2-Year Decline in US Life Expectancy

The virus was third-leading cause of death nationally, CDC reports.


Since March 2020, more than 834,000 people in the United States, as of this writing, have died from COVID-19, a figure that may underestimate the real total, by 100,000 or more, according to media reports.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these grim numbers coincide with an overall decline in life expectancy nationally, by about 2 years, from 2019 to 2020, based on data released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency’s analysis revealed that the average life expectancy for the US population in 2020 was 77.0 years, a drop of 1.8 years from 2019 and the largest 1-year decline in more than 75 years, as reported recently by JAMA Health Forum.

Before COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, average life expectancy for males fell 2.1 years from 76.3 years in 2019 to 74.2 years in 2020, while it dropped by 1.5 years for females, from 81.4 years to 79.9 years over the same period.

This decline in life expectancy was “largely because of increases in mortality due to COVID-19, unintentional injuries, heart disease, homicide, and diabetes,” according to the CDC.

Indeed, although heart disease, which was linked with 168.2 deaths per 100,000 people in the general population, and cancer, which led to 144.1 deaths per 100,000 people in the general population, were still the leading causes of death in the US in 2020, COVID-19 came in third, the agency said.

“The pandemic is the primary cause of these trends in reduced life expectancy,” Theresa Andrasfay, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles told Contagion. “COVID-19 deaths are responsible for a majority of this reduction, but the indirect effects of the pandemic on the healthcare system also led to increases in other causes of death, such as diabetes.”

This is, of course, because many people with chronic conditions avoided healthcare facilities during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

In addition, drug overdose deaths nationally increased by over 30% between 2019 and 2020, Dr. Andrasfay said, “and we cannot attribute this entirely to the pandemic.”

If there has been an underestimate of the true effects of COVID-19 on life and death in the US, it may be the result of the well-publicized lack of testing available nationally at the start of the pandemic, she said. Ironically, that may be an issue again, based on recent news reports.

Although testing shortages—both then and now—shouldn’t “impact the estimates of life expectancy because they rely on deaths from all causes,” according to Andrasfay, deaths from COVID-19 “could continue to reduce US life expectancy relative to what it was pre-pandemic,” she said.

This is particularly true “if vaccine uptake remains relatively low, variants emerge that evade prior immunity and the healthcare system sees continued disruptions,” Andrasfay told Contagion. “However, I think the impacts will not be as severe going forward because we now have treatments for COVID-19 and the evidence suggests that the vaccines have still been effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths even as cases surge.”

Here's hoping that’s true.