U.S. life expectancy drops a full year to lowest in decades

Main causes for decline were COVID-19, drug overdose deaths

Life expectancy at birth in the United States took another hit in 2021, dropping nearly a full year, according to data from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After an even larger drop in 2020, Americans can now expect to live 76.1 years. That marks the largest two-year decline — 2.7 years —in a century and the lowest life expectancy has been since 1996.

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So what’s shortening our lifespans? According to the report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, COVID-19 deaths contributed to the larger than usual decline.

“The decline of 0.9 year of life expectancy between 2020 and 2021 was primarily due to increases in mortality due to COVID-19 (50% of the negative contribution), heart disease (4.1%), chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (3%) and suicide (2.1%),” the report states.

For males, life expectancy at birth was 73.2 years, falling a full year from 2020. The decline was from increases in mortality due to COVID (49.5%), unintentional injuries (19.1%), suicide (3.6%), chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (3.4%) and homicide (2.5%).

Fewer males died in 2021 from influenza and pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and perinatal conditions.

For females, the decrease was 0.8 years, to 79.1, mostly because of higher deaths rates caused by COVID-19 (51.2%), unintentional injuries (14.8%), heart disease (5.7%), stroke (3.5%), and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (2.4%).

During that same time, fewer females died from influenza and pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s, perinatal conditions and HIV infection.

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“Mortality generally, mainly since the 1950s, has changed rather slowly,” Bob Anderson, chief mortality statistician for the CDC, told CNN. Changes of more than a few tenths of a year have been considered substantial, CNN reported.

Drug overdoses, which fall in the category “unintentional injuries,” accounted for a record 109,000 deaths in 2021.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told CNN the increase wasn’t surprising, but was frustrating.

“It is distressing to see a continuing negative impact of drug overdose on the life expectancy of Americans. These deaths often occur in young adults and therefore represent a tragically high number of years of life lost and devastating impact on individuals, families, and communities,” she told CNN. “We have the science and the tools available to help us reverse this trend and reduce the number of overdose deaths in this country. But these tools are not being used effectively.”

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