US life expectancy rebounded in 2022 but not back to pre-pandemic levels

Life expectancy in the United States has started to rebound after historic drops earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s far from recovering.

In 2022, a 1.1-year increase brought overall life expectancy at birth to 77.5 years, according to provisional data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that offsets less than half of the 2.4 years of life lost in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, and life expectancy is still lower than it’s been in about 20 years.

Decreasing mortality from Covid-19 was the key factor driving life expectancy up – for both men and women, and across racial and ethnic groups, according to the CDC report. But Covid-19 remains a leading cause of death in the US, and experts say that continuing to decrease mortality from the virus will be an important contributor to improving life expectancy.

“In 2022, the number of deaths from Covid-19 was not insubstantial,” said Elizabeth Arias, a researcher with the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics who was the lead author of the report, which was published Wednesday. “Holding everything else constant, we’d need to see another large decline in Covid mortality for life expectancy to increase.”

About 245,000 people died from Covid-19 in 2022, down from about 385,000 deaths in 2020 and more than 462,000 deaths in 2021, according to CDC data.

“We only made up close to half of the loss [in life expectancy], and for some groups, it’s even less,” Arias said. “We would need the same pattern that we observed in 2022 again in 2023 and then, perhaps, the following year to completely make up the loss.”

Life expectancy increased the most among American Indian people – with 2.3 years added in 2022 – but that offset only about a third of the “astounding” 6.2 years of life lost earlier in the pandemic. American Indian people had a life expectancy of 67.9 years in 2022, lower than any other racial or ethnic group.

White people have a higher life expectancy than Black people in the US, but that gap has been narrowing over the past three decades, according to the CDC report. In 2022, White people had the smallest rebound in life expectancy, which narrowed that gap even more. The life expectancy for Black people was 72.8 years in 2022, compared with 77.5 years for White people.

Life expectancy among Hispanic and Asian people is higher than average, and that advantage also increased in 2022, reaching 80 years among Hispanic people and 84.5 years among Asian people, CDC data shows.

But only the Hispanic population recovered more than half of the years of life lost in the first two years of the pandemic.

The US has been falling behind on life expectancy for decades, and experts say that challenges to recover years of life loss run deeper than the pandemic.

“For the decade preceding Covid-19, US life expectancy flatlined, whereas it continued to climb in other countries, producing a dramatic widening of the gap between the US and other countries,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health. He was not involved in the new CDC report but has published research on life expectancy trends.

“The factors responsible for that did not go away during the pandemic,” Woolf said, citing drug overdose deaths, suicides, obesity and diabetes, among others. “All that rolled right into the pandemic, so part of what you’re seeing in the non-Covid conditions that are contributing to putting the brakes on progress are these pre-existing problems that already were claiming lives before the pandemic.”

According to the CDC data, lower mortality from heart disease, unintentional injuries, cancer and homicide also helped bolster life expectancy in 2022 overall. But some of these gains were offset by increasing mortality from influenza and pneumonia, perinatal conditions, kidney disease and nutritional deficiencies. And driving factors were not consistent across demographic groups.

Deaths from unintentional injuries, which are mostly fatal drug overdoses, were the driving factor behind the flattening life expectancy in decade before the Covid-19 pandemic, Arias said. That trend “reversed” for the White population, but it remained a “very negative factor” for other groups.

In contrast to overall trends, mortality from unintentional injuries such as drug overdoses and homicide increased among American Indian people and Hispanic people in 2022 and was the primary factor preventing greater gains to life expectancy, according to the CDC data.

And among Black people, higher mortality from perinatal conditions was the top factor offsetting the increase to life expectancy.

“The slowness in the recovery has a lot to do with systemic US health disadvantage, which was already claiming lives before the pandemic,” Woolf said.


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