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Life expectancy drops in the U.S. for the second year in a row


For the first time in a century, the life expectancy of Americans has dropped for two years in a row. That sobering fact comes from a provisional analysis out today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports, the driving force of this trend is COVID-19, but there's more to the story.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Life expectancy in the U.S. has been on a forward march for decades, ticking up a bit year after year, all the way up to 79 years in 2019. The pandemic brought that march to a sudden halt. In 2020, life expectancy dropped to 77 years. And in 2021, it dropped again to 76 years. Dr. Steven Woolf calls these numbers disturbing. He's a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

STEVEN WOOLF: In most other high-income countries, 2021 was a year where life expectancy began to rebound. Having that context makes the U.S. results all the more tragic.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: There are some striking racial disparities in the data. Elizabeth Arias of CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, who was the lead author of the report, says the most dramatic drop in life expectancy was among American Indian or Alaska Native people.

ELIZABETH ARIAS: To see that decline over the two-year period for this population was 6.6 years was jarring.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She notes life expectancy for that population is now 65 years, the same as it was for the whole population in the 1940s. But there is a bit of good news in the data.

ARIAS: For the Hispanic population and the non-Hispanic Black population, who both lost a lot of years during the first year of the pandemic, the loss was a lot smaller during the second year.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For white Americans, life expectancy actually dropped more in 2021 than in 2020, even though vaccines and treatments became available. Now, if you take a step back, the U.S. wasn't doing very well on life expectancy compared to other countries even before the pandemic, says John Haaga. He's a retired division director at the National Institute on Aging, part of NIH.

JOHN HAAGA: We're now behind countries like Slovenia, Costa Rica and Greece.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He laments that nobody seems to get fired up about changing things to help Americans live longer.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.

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