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US life expectancy rebounds, but still lower than before the pandemic

COVID-19 has caused huge fluctuations in life expectancy over the last three years, but it's not the only factor driving the numbers.
US life expectancy rebounds, but still lower than before the pandemic
Posted at 9:26 AM, Nov 29, 2023

U.S. life expectancy at birth, which took a significant decline during the pandemic, appeared to rebound in 2022, preliminary data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates. 

The updated numbers show U.S. life expectancy at birth increased to 77.5 years as of 2022, which was up from 76.4 in 2021 and 77 in 2020. The average life expectancy in the U.S. before the pandemic was 78.8 years.

“I think it's not a surprise we are seeing a rebound in our life expectancy rate,” said Dr. Jaya Kumar, the chief medical officer at Swedish Medical Center. “If the trend continues with the declining number of COVID-19 deaths, we may be able to reach pre-pandemic levels in a couple of years.”

Life expectancy can vary greatly depending on a person's sex and race. American Indian and Alaska Native males had the lowest life expectancy at 64.6 years, while Asian females had the highest life expectancy at 86.3 years — a nearly 22-year spread. 

After the gap between male and female life expectancy widened in 2021, overall male life expectancy improved by 1.3 years while life expectancy for women improved 0.9 years. Females were still expected to outlive males by 5.4 years.

Although overall life expectancy is 1.3 years below pre-pandemic levels, for American Indians and Alaska Natives, it is 3.9 years below pre-pandemic levels. 

“In the 2022 report, the population that gained the most life expectancy was the American Indian and Alaskan Native population, they gained about 2.3 years. But you have to remember this was the ground hardest hit in the pandemic,” Dr. Kumar said.

One major reason for the increase in overall life expectancy in 2022 was the sudden decrease in COVID-19-related deaths in 2022 as compared to 2021. There were also improvements among heart disease, cancer, homicide and unintentional injury deaths. 

However, those were partially offset by increases in deaths related to influenza and pneumonia, perinatal conditions, kidney diseases, nutritional deficiencies and congenital malformations. 

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The new data is considered preliminary as some jurisdictions have not provided all the necessary death certificates. 

In a report released earlier this month highlighting the disparities in life expectancy between different demographics, Howard Koh, professor of the practice of public health leadership at Harvard's Chan School of Public Health, noted the huge gap that remains.

“We need to track these trends closely as the pandemic recedes,” Koh said. “And we must make significant investments in prevention and care to ensure that this widening disparity, among many others, do not become entrenched.”

Life expectancy later in life still lower than before pandemic

In addition to life expectancy at birth, the CDC releases data on remaining life expectancy for various age groups. For instance, as of 2022, the average 40-year-old was expected to live an additional 39.8 years. That remains down from 40.9 years in 2019, but higher than last year's average of 38.8 years. 

The average 65-year-old had a life expectancy of 18.9 years, as of 2022, which is down from 19.6 years in 2019, but up from 18.4 years in 2021. 

The average 80-year-old has a life expectancy of 8.9 years. 

@scrippsnews U.S. life expectancy increased in 2022 to 77.5 years, but this is still not quite back to pre-pandemic levels. COVID-19 is the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer, according to the CDC. The pandemic was one factor that caused life expectancy to decrease in 2020 and 2021. #pandemic #LifeExpectancy #healthtok ♬ original sound - Scripps News

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