In 2021, the average American could expect to live until age 76, which fell from 77 in 2020 and 79 in 2019. That marks the lowest age since 1996 and the largest 2-year decline since 1923.
“Even small declines in life expectancy of a tenth or two-tenths of a year mean that on a population level, a lot more people are dying prematurely,” Robert Anderson, PhD, chief of mortality statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics, which produced the report, told The New York Times.
“This signals a huge impact on the population in terms of increased mortality,” he said.
COVID-19 played a major role, with excess death from the coronavirus contributing to half of the decline during the past 2 years. Drug overdose deaths also reached a record high in 2021, rising to about 109,000 people. Unintentional injuries, with about half due to drug overdose, were a leading cause of the decline in life expectancy, along with deaths from heart disease, chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, and suicide.
The decrease has been particularly devastating among Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Average life expectancy dropped by 4 years in 2020 alone and more than 6.5 years since the beginning of the pandemic. Now their life expectancy is 65, which was the average for all Americans in 1944.
“When I saw that in the report, I just – my jaw dropped,” Dr. Anderson told CNN.
“It was hard enough to fathom a 2.7-year decline over 2 years overall,” he said. “But then to see a 6.6-year decline for the American Indian population, it just shows the substantial impact that the pandemic has had on that population.”
Longstanding health issues and systemic problems, such as poverty, discrimination, and poor access to health care, led to the major declines among Native Americans and Alaska Natives, CNN reported.
“A lot of the talk is going to be around the pandemic, but we need to think about what has driven the conditions that have allowed certain communities to be more vulnerable,” Ruben Cantu, an associate program director with Prevention Institute, a nonprofit focused on health equity, told CNN.
The gap in life expectancy between women and men also became wider in 2021, growing to 5.9 years and marking the largest gap since 1996. The life expectancy for men in 2021 was 73.2, as compared with 79.1 for women.
The decline in overall U.S. life expectancy would have been even greater if there weren’t “offsetting effects,” the researchers wrote, such as declines in death due to the flu, pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The drop in U.S. life expectancy is “historic,” Steven Woolf, MD, retired director of the Center on Society and Health and Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Times.
Other high-income countries also saw a drop in life expectancy in 2020 due to the pandemic, but most began to recover last year due to major vaccine campaigns and behavior changes such as wearing masks, he said.
“None of them experienced a continuing fall in life expectancy like the U.S. did, and a good number of them saw life expectancy start inching back to normal,” he said. “The U.S. is clearly an outlier.”
A version of this article first appeared on WebMD.com.