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US Life Expectancy Drops by 1.31 Years, Hispanic Population Sees Biggest Change

Life expectancy for Black and Hispanic Americans dropped 2 to 3 times more than that of White Americans during the pandemic, a research letter in JAMA Network Open said.

Life expectancy dropped in the United States in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Black and Latino populations seeing declines 2 to 3 times greater than White Americans, a new study found.

The research letter, published in JAMA Network Open, showed that the COVID-19 pandemic reduced overall U.S. life expectancy in 2020 by 1.31 years from 78.74 years to 77.43 years compared with 2018.

The Latino population saw the largest drop in life expectancy, falling by 3.03 years, followed by the Black populations, which saw a 1.9-year decline in life expectancy, and the White population with a 0.93-year drop.

COVID-19 had an enormous mortality toll in the US that hit the Black and Latino populations particularly hard,” lead author Theresa Andrasfay, PhD, a post-doctoral scholar at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, told Contagion®. “The fact that we are seeing such large life expectancy reductions for these populations is a function of the younger ages at which Black and Latino Americans died from COVID-19, likely because of higher exposure through work as well as higher rates of health conditions associated with more severe COVID-19.”

Adrasfay and Noreen Goldman, a specialist in demography and epidemiology at the Office of Population Research and Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, published their findings as an update to earlier research of life expectancy in October that showed the largest single-year decline in life expectancy in at least 40 years.

“Before doing these analyses, we did not expect to find that Latinos would have the largest life expectancy declines due to COVID-19—a finding consistent with other recent research--because in previous years Latinos have typically had lower mortality than whites,” Andrasfay said. “The reasons for the especially large impact on the Latino population still need more research attention, but it’s possible that greater exposure through living arrangements and lower access to health care contribute to their higher mortality burden.”

The noted that Latino populations have lower rates of health insurance, are more likely to live in multigenerational and crowded households, have high poverty rates and language barriers that prevent them from receiving adequate information about COVID-19.

The cross-sectional study included 380,868 COVID-19 deaths, including 230,016 White individuals, 60,405 non-Latino Black individuals and 69,066 Latino individuals. The disparities likely were tempered by changes in the geography of COVID-19 outbreaks, which surged in Midwestern and Mountain states that have large White populations. The investigators’ October estimates projected a smaller decrease in life expectancy among White Americans (0.68 years).

The investigators have begun to examine data for 2021.

“Though it is too early to estimate 2021 life expectancy, the deaths that occurred in just the first three months alone already indicate that 2021 will have reduced life expectancy compared to pre-pandemic levels, and substantial racial and ethnic disparities in these reductions will persist,” Andrasfay said. “The ultimate impact of COVID-19 on 2021 US life expectancy will depend on whether there is sufficient and equitable vaccination across the US.”

Other future research will factor in longer-term effects of the pandemic, health consequences for those who have recovered from COVID-19 and economic effects of the pandemic-related recession.

“Future research will need to examine the longer-term health and mortality impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the health consequences for those who have recovered from COVID-19 and the effects of the recession,” Andrasfay said.

Previous research has detailed health disparities playing out globally during the pandemic. A study by British investigators detailed how social determinants of health contributed to people from marginalized communities seeing greater health and economic effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.