In 2020, most countries around the world experienced a shocking decline in life expectancy as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on society. But as some countries show signs of recovery, a new study found the United States continues to see its life expectancy in free fall.
Researchers examined data from 29 countries around the world and found seven countries in Western Europe saw a significant increase in life expectancy in 2021, according to the study published Monday in Nature Human Behavior. Four of those countries – France, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden – returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, the U.S. reported the third-largest decline in life expectancy, following closely behind Bulgaria and Slovakia.
The study is the latest example of how issues relating to the U.S. health care system, policies and public behavior, which affected life expectancy before COVID-19, were exacerbated by the pandemic, experts say.
“Most of the developed countries experienced some recovery during 2021 … whereas the U.S. was among the countries that had the largest decreases in life expectancy that year,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who is not affiliated with the study.
Study authors said life expectancy in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden returned to pre-pandemic levels by reducing mortality in people 60 and over. They attributed life expectancy declines in other countries to continued mortality in that age group.
But the U.S. was the only country that continued to see life expectancy losses because of increasing mortality in people under 60, accounting for “more than half of the loss in U.S. life expectancy since the start of the pandemic,” study authors said.
The study suggests vaccine uptake may be partly to blame. Researchers analyzed the proportion of the population that was fully vaccinated as of October 2021 and found reduced life expectancy was associated with lower vaccination uptake.
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“Everyone was hit in 2020 … 2020 was about policy response and 2021 becomes a story of vaccination, and the U.S. was not a success story,” said Theresa Andrasfay, postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, who is not affiliated with the study.
Study authors also note the country’s proportion of people with comorbid conditions – which is comparatively larger than European counterparts – may have increased mortality in the working-age population.
The study tracks with earlier reporting showing that U.S. life expectancy decreased from 78.86 years in 2019 to 76.99 years in 2020, then to 76.60 years in 2021 – accumulating a net loss of 2.26 years, according to a study written by Woolf and published in April.
Other research also shows life expectancy losses disproportionately affected Black and Latino Americans. A 2021 study found estimated reductions for those populations are 3 to 4 times that for white people, reversing more than 10 years of progress in closing the life expectancy gap.
Experts say it may take a while for American life expectancy to return to pre-pandemic levels, but even then, the U.S. would still fall behind Europe.
“The U.S. has a series of systemic problems different than what exists in Europe,” Woolf said. “Those systemic problems aren’t going away as quickly as we would like.”
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