U.S. Life Expectancy Saw Biggest Decline since World War II during Pandemic

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Workers lower a coffin into the ground after a graveside service at a cemetery in Salem, Mass., April 22, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

U.S. life expectancy fell by 1.5 years in 2020, the largest single-year drop since World War II, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Wednesday.

The average life expectancy for Americans in 2020 was 77.3 years, a level not seen since 2003.

“I myself had never seen a change this big except in the history books,” Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told reporters. Arias is a lead author of the new life expectancy report.


The main causes of death for Americans are heart disease and cancer, however the decline in life expectancy was driven primarily by the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 contributed to 385,201 American deaths in 2020, according to the CDC.

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“Getting back to where we were before the pandemic is a very bad place….We’ve got a larger problem here,” Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, told the Wall Street Journal.

Additionally, over 93,000 Americans died of drug overdoses during pandemic lockdowns, a record and over 20,000 more than the previous year. Almost 70,000 overdoses last year were caused by natural or synthetic opioid. Deaths from homicide, diabetes, and liver disease — a symptom of alcohol abuse — also surged during the COVID lockdowns.

The U.S. total fertility rate–the number of babies a woman is expected to have during her lifetime–also fell to 1.64 in 2020, the lowest since record-keeping began in the 1930s. Births declined sharply in December, when babies conceived in March or April 2020 would be expected to be born, indicating that couples may have delayed plans for children because of the onset of the pandemic.

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