The COVID-19 pandemic fueled a nearly two-year drop in U.S. life expectancy last year, which also saw record highs in deaths tied to diabetes and unintentional injuries, such as drug overdoses.
Deaths from COVID-19 last year helped drive both the largest increase in the country’s mortality rate on record and the biggest single-year drop in life expectancy in more than seven decades, a new government report shows.
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A total of more than 3.3 million resident deaths were registered in the U.S. in 2020, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
The age-adjusted death rate increased by 16.8% from 715 deaths for every 100,000 persons in 2019 to 835 per 100,000 in 2020, marking the largest one-year rise in the rate since the first year annual mortality data became available.
At the same time, life expectancy at birth in the U.S. dropped by 1.8 years, from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77 years in 2020 – the largest single-year decrease in more than 75 years, according to the report. During World War II, estimated life expectancy in the U.S. fell by nearly three years, data shows.
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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 18: A person walks past a white flag memorial installation honoring the nearly 27,000 Los Angeles County residents who have died from COVID-19 outside Griffith Observatory, with the Hollywood sign in the background, on November 18, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles is holding a three-day citywide ‘Strength and Love’ memorial honoring those who died and those who ‘have held the city together throughout the pandemic’ including first responders and essential workers. Los Angeles County reported 26 additional deaths due to COVID-19 today. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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“Typically a change in life expectancy is a tenth of a year, two-tenths, or occasionally a little bit more than that,” says Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the NCHS. “We haven’t seen a decline of that magnitude since 1943.”
The drop of nearly two years in life expectancy in 2020 exceeds an estimated 1.5-year decline based on provisional data that was published earlier this year. The final data shows that males had the largest decrease in life expectancy, falling from 76.3 years in 2019 to 74.2 years in 2020. Life expectancy among women decreased by 1.5 years, from 81.4 years in 2019 to 79.9 years in 2020.
More than 10% of deaths in 2020 were caused by COVID-19, which ranked as the third-leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. But death rates also increased in 2020 compared with 2019 for six of the 10 leading causes. Though it did not reach a record high, the death rate for unintentional or accidental deaths – a category that includes unintentional fatal drug overdoses – saw the largest increase at 16.8%, and exceeded 200,000 total deaths for the first time. The death rate from diabetes surged by 14.8%, with the condition accounting for more than 100,000 deaths for the first time.
A 4% increase in the rate of heart disease deaths from 2019 to 2020 – from 161.5 to 168.2 per 100,000 – also marked a notable reversal in a rate that’s been trending downward since the 1950s, though more slowly of late.
Anderson calls the large increase in the diabetes death rate in 2020 unusual, even though evidence of mortality related to the disease had been ticking up in recent years. He says it’s possible more diabetes patients avoided or delayed seeking care in 2020 due to concerns about contracting COVID-19, which might have led to a decrease in the number of people with diabetes who had their condition well-managed or controlled.
By contrast, the death rate from diabetes rose by less than 1% from 2018 to 2019 – an increase that was not statistically significant, previous data shows.
“It’s almost certain this large increase in diabetes mortality is pandemic-related,” Anderson says.
A report released in July featuring the preliminary estimates of life expectancy pointed to COVID-19 and drug overdose deaths as two of the biggest contributing factors to the decline. Provisional data released in November by the CDC showed that the number of drug overdose deaths reached an all-time high over a recent 12-month period, exceeding 100,000 for the first time.
Though death rates increased in 2020 across white, Black and Hispanic groups, the newly released figures show a disproportionate impact on people of color, underscoring health gaps evident amid the pandemic.