Study: Life expectancy fell more sharply in U.S. than other 21 peer countries
WASHINGTON (WMTV) - The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic took a greater toll on life expectancy in the United States than every one of the more than 20 other similar countries included in a recent medical study, the newly published research finds. Among the Hispanic and Black communities in the U.S., the decline was even more drastic.
Research published in JAMA Network Open showed American life expectancy slid by a mean of 1.87 years from 2019 to 2020, dropping to 78.86 years.
“The loss of life expectancy of 1.87 years may not sound like a lot to people who don’t do research in this area, but it is gigantic,” Dr. Steve Woolf, one of the study’s authors, told NBC15.
The authors pointed out that the U.S. recorded more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country in 2020, even when adjusting for relative population size. They also highlighted a secondary reason why the drop is notable, the U.S. already had the lowest life expectancy of high-income countries, calling the fact “an ignominious status it held for decades.”
“There is a mythology out there that America is number one, you know, that we are the best, but the facts actually don’t hold up,” Woolf said.
The second-worst performing nation, Spain, saw a dip of 1.43 years, the study indicated. The 21 peer countries included in the survey, combined, saw a life expectancy swing that was less than a third of the United States’ change. The mean average decline was recorded at 0.58 years, or approximately seven months. Three countries – New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan – saw increases in life expectancy, while Finland and Norway saw no significant change.
NBC15 News reached out to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Tuesday morning to gauge how the state compared to the national rate and the averages of the other peer countries. Currently, the agency’s website only contains information through 2017 and the data were last updated in 2019. The Office of Health Informatics did not have any more current information than those published figures and was unable to say when the page would be updated.
Gaps in America
American women did experience a less significant – although still large – change than their male counterparts. Life expectancy for them slid by about a year and a half to 79.88 years, while men fell over two years, 74.19 years.
In the U.S., the Hispanic population saw the sharpest drop, 3.7 years, which the authors reminded readers runs contrary to the historical trend that found they, historically, had higher survival rates. Similarly, the Black population saw life expectancy decline by 3.22 years, to 71.54 years.
“The decrease in U.S. life expectancy was experienced disproportionately by Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations, consistent with a larger history of racial and ethnic health inequities resulting from policies and systemic racism,” the authors wrote in their conclusion. They did not compare racial disparities in other countries, citing differences in how race and ethnicity are perceived and tracked among nations.
“I think that’s already known in healthcare, unfortunately, that there are disparities based on race. And this pandemic has only amplified that,” UW Health Dr. Dan Shirley said.
The study’s authors stated that the U.S. was especially vulnerable to seeing a life expectancy drop greater than other similar countries as the COVID-19 swept across the globe. Saying the country entered the pandemic “in a fundamentally weakened state,” noting that life expectancy in America started rising more slowly than the 21 other countries in the 1980s and by the time it plateaued in 2010, the U.S. was 1.9 years behind them. By 2018, another year was added to that gap, with the difference rising to 3.1 years, before ballooning to four-and-a-half years in 2020.
Beyond the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the study’s authors blamed a multitude of factors for growing the gap between the U.S. and the other countries over the past dozen years. Those reasons included the death rates from drug overdoses and cardiometabolic diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. The authors also pointed to the United States’ lack of universal health care and the called its public health and safety protections weaker.
“And many of the systemic factors that are responsible for that played into the pandemic,” Woolf said.
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The authors noted in their research variables that could have introduced errors into their analysis, including the U.S. relying on five-year age intervals that went up to 85-years-old and was open-ended from there. They also pointed out that their numbers, which were compiled in January 2022, are based on provisional reports. To help account for the issues, researchers introduced a 10% random uncertainty to age-specific mortalities and simulating 50,000 life tables.
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