Life expectancy at birth in the United States declined nearly a year from 2020 to 2021, according to new provisional data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). That decline – 77.0 to 76.1 years – took U.S. life expectancy at birth to its lowest level since 1996. The 0.9 year drop in life expectancy in 2021, along with a 1.8 year drop in 2020, was the biggest two-year decline in life expectancy since 1921-1923.
The data are featured in a new report, “Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for 2021.” The report shows non-Hispanic American Indian-Alaskan Native people (AIAN) had the biggest drop in life expectancy in 2021 – 1.9 years. AIAN people had a life expectancy at birth of 65.2 years in 2021 – equal to the life expectancy of the total U.S. population in 1944. AIAN life expectancy has declined 6.6 years from 2019 to 2021.
Non-Hispanic white people in the United States had the second biggest decline in life expectancy in 2021 – one full year from 77.4 in 2020 to 76.4 in 2021. Non-Hispanic Black people had the third biggest decline, a 0.7 year drop from 71.5 years in 2020 to 70.8 in 2021. Life expectancy at birth in 2021 was the lowest for both groups since 1995. After a large (4.0 year) drop in life expectancy from 2019 to 2020, Hispanic people in the U.S. had a slight decline in 2021 of 0.2 years to 77.6 years. Life expectancy for non-Hispanic Asian people also dropped slightly in 2021 – 0.1 years – to 83.5 years, the highest life expectancy of any race/ethnic group included in this analysis.
Other findings documented in the report:
- Life expectancy at birth for women in the United States dropped 0.8 years from 79.9 years in 2020 to 79.1 in 2021, while life expectancy for men dropped one full year, from 74.2 years in 2020 to 73.2 in 2021. The report shows the disparity in life expectancy between men and women grew in 2021 from 5.7 years in 2020 to 5.9 years in 2021. From 2000 to 2010, this disparity had narrowed to 4.8 years, but gradually increased from 2010 to 2019 and is now the largest gap since 1996.
- The declines in life expectancy since 2019 are largely driven by the pandemic. COVID-19 deaths contributed to nearly three-fourths or 74% of the decline from 2019 to 2020 and 50% of the decline from 2020 to 2021. An estimated 16% of the decline in life expectancy from 2020 to 2021 can be attributed to increases in deaths from accidents/unintentional injuries. Drug overdose deaths account for nearly half of all unintentional injury deaths. The most recent data reported by NCHS showed more than 109,000 overdose deaths in the one-year period ending in March of 2022.
- Other causes of death contributing to the decline in life expectancy from 2020 to 2021 include heart disease (4.1% of the decline), chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (3.0%), and suicide (2.1%). For men, the one-year decline in life expectancy was attributed primarily to mortality from COVID-19 (49.5% of the decline), unintentional injuries (19.1%), suicide (3.6%), chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (3.4%), and homicide (2.5%). For women, the 0.8 year decline in life expectancy was attributed mainly to mortality from COVID-19 (51.2% of the decline), unintentional injuries (14.8%), heart disease (5.7%), stroke (3.5%), and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (2.4%).