The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is pointing to Covid-19 as one of the biggest culprits for life expectancy in the U.S. dropping to its lowest level in a quarter century.
Life expectancy is now two and a half years shorter than it was at the start of the pandemic. After a drop of 1.8 years in 2020, another 0.6 years has been cut off, bringing life expectancy down to 76.4 years in 2021, according to the CDC.
The change is historic. Life expectancy typically only changes by 0.1 or 0.2 years.
Nearly one in eight deaths in 2021 were due to Covid, an increase from one in 10 deaths in 2020. In both years, it was the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer. About half of all deaths in 2021 were from these three causes.
Only Alzheimer’s disease and chronic lower respiratory diseases declined among the leading causes of death.
The CDC is also pointing a finger at drug overdoses, saying deaths from this cause rose significantly—reaching record levels in 2021. Nearly 107,000 people died of a drug overdose in that year, driving up the age-adjusted death rate for overdoses more than 14% in one year, and 50% over 2020 and 2021 combined.
Death rates from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, which are often alcohol-related, also rose during the pandemic, according to the CDC’s data.
The race gap reversed somewhat in 2021 as white people lost more ground than people of color, though they still live longer on average.
White people saw a significant jump in death rates—up about 7% between 2020 and 2021 among both men and women. Only about half of white people in the U.S. have gotten their initial Covid-19 vaccine, well below the national average, and CDC data estimates that the risk of dying from Covid-19 was about seven times higher for unvaccinated people in December 2021.
Overall, life expectancy for women was nearly six years longer than it was for men in 2021, a gap similar to that in 2020. Age-adjusted death rates were lowest among Asian men and women, while they were highest—and increased significantly—among American Indian and Alaska Native men.
The death rate for Black men declined slightly in 2021, but was still the second highest among the demographic groups.