Effect of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 on life expectancy across populations in the USA and other high income countries: simulations of provisional mortality data


Steven H. Woolf



Objective: To estimate changes in life expectancy in 2010-18 and during the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 across population groups in the United States and to compare outcomes with peer nations.

Design: Simulations of provisional mortality data.

Setting: US and 16 other high income countries in 2010-18 and 2020, by sex, including an analysis of US outcomes by race and ethnicity.

Population: Data for the US and for 16 other high income countries from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Human Mortality Database, respectively.

Main outcome measures: Life expectancy at birth, and at ages 25 and 65, by sex, and, in the US only, by race and ethnicity. Analysis excluded 2019 because life table data were not available for many peer countries. Life expectancy in 2020 was estimated by simulating life tables from estimated age specific mortality rates in 2020 and allowing for 10% random error. Estimates for 2020 are reported as medians with fifth and 95th centiles.

Results: Between 2010 and 2018, the gap in life expectancy between the US and the peer country average increased from 1.88 years (78.66 v 80.54 years, respectively) to 3.05 years (78.74 v 81.78 years). Between 2018 and 2020, life expectancy in the US decreased by 1.87 years (to 76.87 years), 8.5 times the average decrease in peer countries (0.22 years), widening the gap to 4.69 years. Life expectancy in the US decreased disproportionately among racial and ethnic minority groups between 2018 and 2020, declining by 3.88, 3.25, and 1.36 years in Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic White populations, respectively. In Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations, reductions in life expectancy were 18 and 15 times the average in peer countries, respectively. Progress since 2010 in reducing the gap in life expectancy in the US between Black and White people was erased in 2018-20; life expectancy in Black men reached its lowest level since 1998 (67.73 years), and the longstanding Hispanic life expectancy advantage almost disappeared.

Conclusions: The US had a much larger decrease in life expectancy between 2018 and 2020 than other high income nations, with pronounced losses among the Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations. A longstanding and widening US health disadvantage, high death rates in 2020, and continued inequitable effects on racial and ethnic minority groups are likely the products of longstanding policy choices and systemic racism.

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