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Average Life Expectancy Has Dropped by 3 Years – But Why?

September 27, 2022

COVID-19 is being largely blamed for a recent drop in life expectancy, but one Hartford HealthCare expert said other factors related to the pandemic might be more to blame than the virus itself.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported the sharpest two-year decline in life expectancy in nearly a century, from 79 years in 2019 to 76 years in 2021. The drop was even steeper for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, whose life expectancy is now 65. White Americans suffered a more drastic decrease than Black Americans.

Federal researchers pointed to a number of contributing factors, including:

  • COVID-19
  • Accidental deaths
  • Drug overdoses
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis

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Not the pandemic alone

Tony Schwartz, MD, a family medicine practitioner in Norwich, said that although the problem might have peaked during COVID-19, it is not due to the pandemic alone.

Life expectancy changes are more sensitive to effects on younger people, he said. As historic context, he said in the 20th and 21st centuries, increases in life expectancy was largely attributed to lowered infant mortality. War, conversely, disproportionally lowered life expectancy with the deaths of young people.

Other factors also play a role. The research team noted, “The white population did worse in 2021 than communities of color, besides Native Americans and Alaska natives. It reflects the greater efforts by Black and Hispanics to get vaccinated, to wear masks and to take other measures to protect themselves, and the greater tendency in white populations to push back on those behaviors.”

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A mental health crisis

Dr. Schwartz also pointed to mental health as part of the cause in the life expectancy decline.

“The pandemic response and lock-downs made a lot of young people depressed and resulted in increased suicides, drug addiction, alcoholism and other risky behaviors,” Dr. Schwartz said. “The increased prevalence of Fentanyl also increased addiction-related deaths.

> Related: Teen Overdoses Have Doubled in Two Years, But What’s to Blame?

Race as a factor

The statistics showed a stark difference between the change in life expectancy for Black and white Americans, even though Blacks were more likely to die from COVID-19. Dr. Schwartz surmised the reason could be related to historic differences between the two populations, particularly youth.

Life expectancy in the young Black community is already lower comparatively, influenced by higher baseline unemployment, addiction, crime, etc. The extra stress of the pandemic did not lower this as much as for other demographic communities,” he said.

Reversing the trend

Trends are made to be reversed, and Dr. Schwartz said with society returning to normal, people should assess any changes they’ve experienced and strengthen healthy behaviors and mental health.

“I am optimistic we will not see the same decline as time goes forward. For the most part, I think we are getting society back to normalcy with lock-downs no longer an issue,” he said.

Society should also help anyone who dropped out of school or left work during the pandemic get their lives back to normal.

The focus should be on mental issues and addiction treatment. In primary care, there should be a move to ask our patients about their struggles coming out of the pandemic, and focus on helping them,” Dr. Schwartz said.