How the Fall in U.S. Life Expectancy Compares to Other Wealthy Nations

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Life expectancy in America has continued its downward slide. Life expectancy at birth in 2019 was 78.86 years; it dipped to 76.99 years in 2020, then went down again to 76.60 years for 2021. The decline came as COVID-19 death rates peaked in early 2021.

While the global pandemic had a significant impact on the health outcomes of different countries around the world, the U.S. performed especially poorly – particularly when compared to other wealthy nations. To determine how changes in life expectancy in the U.S. from 2019 to 2021 compare to those in 19 other countries around the world, 24/7 Tempo consulted a preprint study (i.e., one not yet peer-reviewed) published on the health sciences server medRxiv.  

Over the period covered, U.S. life expectancy dropped by 2.26 years, by far the highest of any comparable country. In fact, of the 19 other nations considered, none had a life expectancy decline of even one year, and seven nations actually reported increases in life expectancy. (These are the metros with the shortest life expectancy.)

The changes in U.S. life expectancy were “highly racialized” according to the preliminary findings of the report. Black and Hispanic Americans had the most significant declines in life expectancy in 2020, yet in 2021 the only U.S. group to experience a decline in life expectancy was non-Hispanic whites. 

The U.S. healthcare system faces significant challenges relative to those of other wealthy nations. The study blamed “systemic racism and its attendant injustices and inadequacies in how the pandemic was managed” for many of the declines in life expectancy, but other shortcomings in the system play a role as well. Many hospitals are short-staffed and under-resourced, making it difficult for medical professionals to provide prompt care. (Here are 16 states where hospitals are experiencing the worst workforce shortages.)

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