US life expectancy extended its decline from 2020 into 2021, the country’s largest two-year drop in a century, as Covid-19 and the epidemic of opioid overdoses took their toll on the population.
Overall life expectancy at birth declined by almost 3 years from 2019 to 2021 to 76.1 years, the lowest level since 1996, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Prospects were bleakest for Native American people, whose life expectancy plunged by 6.6 years to 65.2 years in 2021, matching the level of the total US population in 1944.

The US has reported the world’s most deaths from Covid, with more than 1 million since the pandemic’s 2020 onset, while tallies from Brazil, India and Russia trail by hundreds of thousands. The onslaught of Covid-related deaths was driven by the nation’s lack of preparedness to effectively distribute resources in the early months, said Noreen Goldman, a Princeton University demography professor.

“We didn’t have a strong coordinated national effort at reducing transmission,” Goldman said. Relatively low vaccination and booster shot rates nationwide are among the contributing factors, she said.

\While almost half of the 2020-2021 life expectancy decline can be traced to Covid-19, another 16% was related to unintentional injuries, with about half of those being overdoses of drugs such as opioids. The most recent data CDC data shows more than 109,000 overdose deaths in the year ending in March.

It was only the second time in a century that US life expectancy declined for two straight years, with a smaller dip coming from 1921-1923. Other causes of death contributing to the recent steep drop include chronic diseases and suicide.

Regional differences in health have already been identified as playing a role in the US decline in life expectancy. Americans born in Hawaii live nine years longer, on average, than Mississippi natives, according to a government report released last week. Life expectancy is shortest in many southern US states, with Mississippi coming in last at just under 72 years, according to the earlier CDC report.

Factors such as racial discrimination, poverty and limited access to quality health care exacerbate the downward trends in life expectancy among Native Americans, Goldman said.

White and Black Americans had slightly smaller drops but were nonetheless left with their shortest life expectancy in more than two decades. The decrease for White people was 1 year and 0.7 years for Black people. Hispanic people in the US had a slight decline in 2021 of 0.2 years to 77.6 years, and Asian Americans dropped by 0.1 years to 83.5 years -- the highest of any race, the report said.

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.