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Life expectancy drops more in the U.S. than other wealthy nations, esp among Native Americans

A doctor pulls a sheet over an empty hospital bed
Scott Olson
/
Getty Images
The continued death toll from COVID led to another drop in life expectancy in 2021.

News Brief

U.S. life expectancy was already lower than other high-income nations — and the gap was widening — before 2019. New research suggests it’s gotten worse.

“2020 was just a horrific year in terms of excess mortality, and it was disproportionately concentrated among marginalized, racialized, populations,” said Ryan Masters, an associate professor of sociology at University of Colorado, Boulder.

Masters led the research, which was published as a pre-print in health sciences server MedRxiv.

“The U.S. white population, for example, lost about one and one half years (of life expectancy), but the Hispanic population lost about three and a half years. And the Native American population lost over four years of life expectancy,” he said.

For Native American men, he estimated they lost about 4.75 years of life expectancy, “which are numbers you just don't hear of in modern day society.”

That ties into long-standing oppression and isolation of these communities. However, he said by 2021, things did get slightly better. Through tribal actions and vaccination campaigns, life expectancies rebounded for older men who are Native American or Alaska Native.

“Some of the native populations exhibited the best of us in 2021,” he said.

Beyond that, he said non-white groups saw largely the same rates that year.

At the same time, things were getting worse for white American men, who had the greatest decrease in life expectancy for 2021 (0.9 years). That was driven disproportionately by young and middle-aged men, according to the study.

“The vast majority of the (life expectancy) reductions in midlife among white men in 2021 were COVID-related. These were avoidable. They were preventable,” he said.

He said this was likely a reflection of lower vaccine rates, especially among those men younger than 65.

Masters said other causes of death besides COVID-19 are hard to detangle, like opioid deaths, but many of those were also exacerbated by the pandemic.

The research found that the overall life expectancy in the U.S. was about 76.44 years in 2021, down from 78.85 in 2019, but that’s built from survival rates of all different ages.

Looking at the big picture, Masters says his research shows life expectancies could rebound in other countries far more than they have been in the U.S., where things got worse for people younger than 65 in 2021.

“The fact that it did get better in other high-income countries shows that it was possible. And the fact that we weren't able to attain that, I think is really sad story.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau at Boise State Public Radio.