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Experts claim US life expectancy dropped by a year during 2020

6 months 4 weeks 2 hours ago Thursday, February 18 2021 Feb 18, 2021 February 18, 2021 4:58 AM February 18, 2021 in News
Source: CNN
Generic image of a couple wearing masks as they walk in public during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Most would agree that the health, social, and economic ramifications of the COVID-19 health crisis have been far-reaching, but a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that the pandemic's effects have been even more monumental than many realized.

According to CNN's analysis of the report, life expectancy in the U.S. actually decreased by a full year in the first half of 2020 and health officials are pointing to novel coronavirus as a major contributing factor to the decline.

Life expectancy can be defined as how long a baby born today is expected to live, on average.  According to the CDC's report, in the first half of last year, that was 77.8 years for Americans overall, which was down one year from what it had been in 2019, when the average life expectancy was 78.8. For males it was 75.1 years and for females, 80.5 years.

CNN notes that for the past 40 years, life expectancy has increased slowly but rarely declined. For example, between 2014 and 2017 -- a peak period of the opioid epidemic -- life expectancy declined a third of a year, and this in itself was significant.

Admittedly, life-expectancy estimates before 1980 were measured less consistently. But experts say estimates for drops in life expectancy after World War II range from less than a year to three years.

But since COVID-19 crept across the globe and made its way into the U.S. in early 2020 about 490,000 people in the nation lost their lives to the disease, and the CDC estimates excess deaths in 2020 to be even higher.

"A year of life expectancy lost doesn't really give you a true sense of how serious this has been. Millions of life years were actually lost," Eileen Crimmins, a professor at the University of Southern California who has researched changes in mortality, told reporters. "COVID is on track to cause more deaths than cancer or heart disease, and that's important."

While the majority of those who lost their lives to COVID-19 were older adults, a researcher at the University of Southern California notes that even though deaths among younger adults may be less common, the numbers are still substantial.

The researcher told CNN, "Those deaths have a significant effect on life expectancy because they contribute to more foregone years of life." 

The news agency notes that the new life-expectancy estimates from the CDC mark the first time the agency has published these figures using provisional data that comes from death certificates that were received and processed for the first half of 2020.

Due to the fact that experts based data on deaths recorded between January and June, the report notes that the estimates "do not reflect the entirety of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, or other changes in causes of death."

“What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year ... I would expect that these numbers would only get worse,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco.

The CDC's new report also notes that certain geographic areas were affected more than others earlier in the pandemic, and timely reporting of deaths varies by jurisdiction.

Dr. Otis Brawley, a cancer specialist and public health professor at Johns Hopkins University told the Associated Press, “The focus really needs to be broad spread of getting every American adequate care. And health care needs to be defined as prevention as well as treatment.” 

Basically, the decrease in life expectancy is evidence of “our mishandling of the pandemic,” Brawley said.

“We have been devastated by the coronavirus more so than any other country. We are 4% of the world’s population, more than 20% of the world’s coronavirus deaths,” he explained.

Not enough use of masks, early reliance on drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, “which turned out to be worthless,” and other missteps meant many Americans died needlessly, Brawley said.

“Going forward, we need to practice the very basics” such as hand-washing, physical distancing and vaccinating as soon as possible to get prevention back on track, he said.

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