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U.S. life expectancy starts to recover after sharp pandemic decline

Life expectancy in the U.S. is up in 2022, but it's still lower than before the pandemic.
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Life expectancy in the U.S. is up in 2022, but it's still lower than before the pandemic.

The average life expectancy in the U.S. is now 77.5 years old, according to provisional 2022 data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That represents an increase of 1.1 years over 2021 numbers. "The good news is that life expectancy increased for the first time in two years," says Elizabeth Arias, a demographer in the CDC's Division of Vital Statistics and co-author on the paper. "The not-so-good news is that the increase in life expectancy only accounted for less than 50% of the loss that was experienced between 2019 and 2021."

In 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 became the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer. Average U.S. life expectancy dropped by 2.4 years.

Now, even though the trend has reversed, the nation's life expectancy is at the level it was in 2003, noted Arias. Basically, it's like twenty years of lost progress.

"To me, these numbers are rather bleak," says Jacob Bor, associate professor of global health and epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, "The extent to which life expectancy has recovered is far short of what people had hoped."

Most of the gains in 2022 U.S. life expectancy come from fewer COVID deaths – COVID dropped to the fourth leading cause of death. There were also some declines in mortality due to heart disease, injuries, cancers and homicide.

Some of those declines were offset by increases in mortality due to flu and pneumonia, birth problems, kidney disease and malnutrition.

Researchers say U.S. life expectancy lags far behind other wealthy countries. "We started falling, relative to other countries, in the 1980's and we have just fallen further and further behind," says Eileen Crimmins, chair of gerontology at the University of Southern California.

Crimmins says other wealthy countries in Europe and Asia do much better on preventing early deaths from causes such as heart disease, gun violence, giving birth and infectious diseases for which there are vaccines. "These are things that don't require scientific investigation to know how to actually prevent them," she says. "Other countries prevent them. We don't."

There are also huge differences in life expectancy by race and ethnicity tucked into the U.S. life expectancy numbers. "The disparities are tremendous," says Arias from CDC. American Indian/Alaskan Native and Black populations consistently have far lower life expectancies than the White population. These gaps were exacerbated during the pandemic, and remain quite large.

Researchers hope the 2022 numbers serve as a wake-up call to policymakers to take measures to improve quality of life — and reduce early, preventable deaths — in the U.S.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.

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