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Americans' life expectancy drops to lowest point in over two decades

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Photo by Brendan Smialowski - Pool/Getty Images

A federal report released on Wednesday revealed that there has been a precipitous drop in the average life expectancy in America for the second consecutive year. In 2019, the average American was expected at birth to live to 78 years and 10 months. That figure dropped to 77 years in 2020. Now, the life expectancy for the U.S. population stands at 76 years and one month — the lowest it has been since 1996.

This statistical drop constitutes the biggest two-year decline in a century.

Data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics indicated that men can expect to live 73.2 years, down from 74.2 years in 2020. Women can expect to live 79.1 years, down from 79.9 two years ago. This 5.9-year delta between life expectancy for men and women is the highest it has been in over 25 years.

There is a significant difference between life expectancies for different racial groups in the U.S. as well. As a group, non-Hispanic American Indians or Alaska Natives reportedly have the lowest life expectancy, at 65.2 years. Non-Hispanic Asians have the highest life expectancy, at 83.5 years. The average for white people is 76.4 years, and for black people, the life expectancy is 70.8 years.

COVID-19 deaths accounted for half of the negative contributions of cause-specific death rates to the decline that occurred from 2020 to 2021.

Among the other negative contributions to the decline were: unintentional injuries (14.9%); heart disease (4.1%); chronic liver disease and cirrhosis (3%); and suicide (2.1%).

The federal report noted neither suicide nor homicide were primary factors contributing to the decline in life expectancy of women, whereas for men they factored in at 3.6% and 2.5% respectively.

Drug overdose deaths, which killed approximately 109,000 people in 2021, are counted as "unintentional injuries." Unintentional injuries in 2021 were 3.7 points higher than in 2020.

Although unintentional, these particular deaths reflected in the life expectancy decline were not necessarily unpreventable.

Fentanyl is the leading cause of death in Americans ages 18-45 and was responsible for killing 40,010 Americans between April 2020 and April 2021. In the bipartisan Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking's final report, researchers recognized Mexico as the "principle source of this illicit fentanyl and its analogues today" and noted, "Without a major shift in U.S. policy, more American sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends will perish."

The statistical decline exacerbated by drug overdoses would have been far greater, researchers indicated, were it not for decreases in mortality due to influenza and pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer's disease, perinatal conditions, and Parkinson's disease.

This outcome was by no means inevitable or internationally consistent, a Princeton University demographer suggested to the Washington Post. "There's some countries whose life expectancy in '21 was higher than pre-pandemic. They suffered in 2020 and by '21, they had more than recovered. That's not us."

According to 2022 United Nations World Population Prospects data, the lowest life expectancy of all the countries reported on in 2021 was Chad, whose residents could expect to live on average 52.5 years. China allegedly had a life expectancy of 78.2 years, and citizens of the United Kingdom saw an average life expectancy of 80.7 years.

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