US life expectancy climbs, but remains below pre-pandemic levels

Newborn babies fill the nursery of a postpartum recovery center in upstate New York. U.S. [AP Photo]

Life expectancy in the United States is on the rise but remains lower than it was in the years before the Covid-19 pandemic, as a host of other factors contributing to mortality, including chronic disease, gun violence and a persistent epidemic of overdose deaths, continue to plague the country.

According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, an American born in 2022 could expect to live 77.5 years on average, up 1.1 years from 2021, with most of the improvement accounted for by the reduction in Covid-19 deaths.

However, as recently as 2019, the year before the pandemic began in earnest, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 78.8 years. While some other countries with advanced economies and modern healthcare infrastructure have seen their life expectancy rates return to pre-pandemic levels, the U.S. still lags behind.

There are also wide gaps in life expectancy across demographic groups in the U.S. Women, for example, had a life expectancy of 80.2 years in 2022, compared to just 74.8 years for men.

Asian Americans born in 2022 could expect to live 84.5 years, and Hispanic Americans of any race had a life expectancy of 80 years. White Americans matched the overall average at 77.5 years, while Black Americans could expect to live 72.8 years. The lowest life expectancy reported by the CDC was for American Indian and Alaska Native Americans, at 67.9 years.

Behind peer countries

“There's both good and bad news here,” Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a professor of public health at George Washington University, told VOA.

“It's disappointing that life expectancy has not rebounded more following the worst of COVID,” Wen said. “But that said, life expectancy in 2022 did rise by more than a full year. And it's thought that more than 80% of this positive increase was attributed to a drop in COVID-19 deaths.

“Even before COVID, the U.S. was already behind our peer countries when it came to life expectancy,” she added. “Even without COVID, improvements in life expectancy have been stagnating in the U.S. over the last decade. So it's not surprising, then, that we would not have as robust of a rebound as other countries. We need to improve our health care infrastructure in this country, especially when it comes to preventing illnesses and addressing chronic diseases.”

In much of Europe, as well as in developed economies in Asia, including Japan and South Korea, life expectancy is significantly above 80 years for the average person.

Coronavirus still matters

While coronavirus deaths are down to just a fraction of what they were in 2020 and 2021, the disease still presents a serious threat to the lives of many Americans, especially because the widespread existence of chronic diseases common to U.S. adults make dying from an infection more likely.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, told VOA that the country could still be doing more to limit deaths from coronavirus infections, including by encouraging more Americans to get vaccinated against the disease.

However, he said the threat from the pandemic represents only part of the troubles facing U.S. public health officials.

“There are many challenges to American health beyond COVID,” Sharfstein said. “So, we have a ways to go, and many of those challenges got worse during the pandemic.”

In addition to improving preventive care for respiratory illnesses, Sharfstein’s organization has called for concerted action by the government to address overdose deaths, suicides, gun violence, motor vehicle crashes, heat-related deaths, as well as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Change by demographic group

While all of the demographic groups tracked by the CDC saw their life expectancies rise between 2021 and 2022, the increase varied significantly.

The American Indian and Alaskan Native cohort experienced the largest year-over-year boost in life expectancy of 2.4 years for men and 2.1 years for women. However, that same group experienced the most severe decline in life expectancy during the pandemic, a loss of 6.2 years between 2019 and 2021.

Hispanic Americans had the next largest gain in 2022, with life expectancy for men rising by 2.4 years and for women by 1.7 years. The group as a whole saw life expectancy drop by 4.1 years between 2019 and 2021.

For Black men and Black women, the average life expectancy increased by 1.5 years in 2022. As a group, Black Americans experienced an overall decline in life expectancy of 3.6 years during the pandemic.

Male Asian Americans saw their life expectancy increase by 1.2 years in 2022, with Asian American women seeing an increase of 0.7 years. Asian Americans as a group saw life expectancy decline by 2.1 years from 2019 to 2022.

As a group, White Americans had the smallest rebound in life expectancy last year, with men charting a gain of 1.1 years and women 0.6 years. As a group, White Americans lost 2.1 years of life expectancy between 2019 and 2022.