U.S. Life Expectancy Fell to Lowest Level Since 1996

Life expectancy in the U.S. fell again last year to the lowest level since 1996, federal data showed, after Covid-19 and opioid overdoses drove up the number of deaths.

Covid-19 was the third-leading cause of death for a second consecutive year in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday, and a rising number of drug-overdose deaths also dragged down life expectancy. Overdose deaths have risen fivefold over the past two decades.

The death rate for the U.S. population increased by 5%, cutting life expectancy at birth to 76.4 years in 2021 from 77 years in 2020. The CDC in August released preliminary estimates demonstrating a similar decline. Before the pandemic, in 2019, life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 78.8 years. The decline in 2020 was the largest since World War II.

Heart disease remained the leading cause of death in the U.S., followed by cancer. The CDC in its final count said there were 416,893 deaths last year where Covid-19 was the underlying cause, up nearly 19% from the 350,831 deaths counted during the pandemic’s first year. Though excluded here, throughout the pandemic the CDC has also included instances where Covid-19 is listed as a contributing cause of death while tracking the impact of the disease.

Though Covid-19 deaths have declined as protection against severe disease has grown, due to vaccines and prior infections, it is once again poised to be a significant cause of death in 2022. The CDC’s preliminary count for this year from death certificates, including deaths where Covid-19 was the underlying and contributing cause, topped 233,000 by mid-December.

The country during the pandemic has recorded more than 1.2 million excess deaths, which is a measure of all deaths beyond prior-year averages and can represent both undercounted Covid-19 deaths and collateral damage from other causes, including more overdoses. The CDC put the final count for 2021 overdose deaths at about 106,700, a record that is 16% higher than the prior year. The final count differs from a preliminary count for last year that topped 108,000 because the CDC in its final counts doesn’t include overdose deaths that occurred among non-U. S. residents.

The replacement of heroin in many markets with illicit versions of the powerful opioid fentanyl, which is cheaper and easier for Mexican cartels to manufacture, has fueled the surge in overdose deaths.

The rate of drug fatalities involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, a category that largely includes fentanyl, increased 22% year-over-year. The synthetic opioid is also increasingly showing up in the death certificates among people who died with cocaine and methamphetamine in their system. Cocaine deaths climbed 22% while deaths from a drug category mostly including meth rose by 33%.

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