America Faces The Largest Life Expectancy Drop In Over 70 Years

01/03/22 10:33AM EST

Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

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In 2020, U.S. life expectancy fell by 1.8 years to 77.0 years. The final 2020 figure is 0.3 years less than the provisional estimate that was released in July 2021. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

NH: The final 2020 number from the CDC is in. Americans’ life expectancy at birth fell 1.8 years to 77.0 years.

The drop is 0.3 years more than the provisional estimate we reported on in July 2021 (see “US Life Expectancy Fell by 1.5 Years in 2020”) and remains the largest one-year drop in 77 years.

The last drop that was larger was in 1943, when 100-200K combat deaths among young men contributed heavily to a 2.9 year decline.

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Before the provisional numbers came in, we predicted--correctly--that the provisional life expectancy drop for 2020 would be 1.5 years. (See “In First Half of 2020, US Life Expectancy Fell by One Year.”) Why is the final figure now showing a greater decline?

According to the CDC, it’s simply due to updated data. Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told the Wall Street Journal that the final figures are larger “because they incorporate Medicare data that more accurately captures mortality among the oldest Americans.”

Covid-19 is the cause of death that has most disproportionately impacted older Americans. To date, 75% of deaths have been among those 65 and older.

1 in 100 people in this age bracket has died from the virus. It does look like the CDC’s estimates for the number of Covid-related deaths in 2020 have indeed been revised upwards.

As a result, the decline in life expectancy at age 65 fell more steeply (by 5.6%) than the decline in life expectancy at birth (by 2.3%). This reverses the trend we have witnessed since 2014 of flat or falling life expectancy at birth even while life expectancy at age 65 has kept rising. (See "Adults Under Age 65 Driving Decline in U.S. Life Expectancy.")

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In 2020, Covid-19 was the third-leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.

A sharp rise in mortality from unintentional injuries--which include drug overdoses (see “Fentanyl Epidemic Accelerates”)--as well as increases in heart disease, homicide, and diabetes, also contributed to the life expectancy decline. Mortality rates rose for every age group except children ages 1 to 14.

In other words, it was a miserable year for all adult age brackets in 2020. Even Covid, while much less deadly under age 40 than over age 60, was a significant killer of young adults.

10.2K Americans in their 40s died of Covid in 2020, which is more three times as many as were killed in homicides. (And this was a bad year for homicides.) But of course opioids took an even worse toll on 40-somethings in 2020, killing at least twice as many as Covid.

The following NCHS graph shows mortality rates by age in 2019 and 2020 on a log scale. This means that the absolute size of the difference between the two bars indicates the percentage size of the mortality rate change.

Note that the younger bars actually show a slightly larger shift than the older bars, indicating that their mortality rates experienced a relatively larger rise.

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Life expectancy peaked six years ago at 78.9 years in 2014. The last time it was this low was in 2002, 18 years ago.

Given that both deaths from Covid-19 and drug overdoses have trended upwards in 2021, it’s likely we will see another decline in life expectancy in 2021--though this decline will not be nearly as large. Going into the final week of December, there were 10% more Covid deaths in 2021 than in all of 2020.

Yes, there will be a life expectancy rebound. But we need to be past the pandemic for that. Let's hope 2022 is that year.

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ABOUT NEIL HOWE

Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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