U.S. life expectancy rose in 2022, but not enough to erase the pandemic’s toll

Life expectancy in the U.S. ticked upward in 2022, following two years of significant declines driven primarily by the Covid pandemic, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published Wednesday. 

The CDC data showed that life expectancy at birth — how long a baby born in a particular year is expected to live — was 77.5 years in 2022, a 1.1-year increase from 2021. 

The number, however, still lags behind what U.S. life expectancy was in 2019: 78.8 years. 

“We had this dip during the Covid-19 pandemic and we’re clawing our way back to the numbers we saw in 2019,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Other wealthy nations also saw dips in 2020, but their life expectancies began to climb again in 2021, when vaccines and better Covid treatments were introduced. In the U.S., life expectancy fell even further in 2021.

“To see an increase now in 2022 is great — we finally stopped the horrific worsening of mortality conditions in the United States,” said Ryan Masters, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But it’s coming a year later than what other comparable countries experienced and it’s only marginally scratching the surface of improving mortality conditions for Americans.”

Prior to the pandemic, life expectancy in the U.S. had largely plateaued, while in other countries it continued to climb.

“The U.S. had already been doing quite poorly compared to other countries,” Woolf said. “The gap between the U.S. and other countries is now enormous.”

Fewer Covid deaths driving life expectancy bump

The increase in life expectancy in 2022 was mainly driven by the sharp drop in Covid deaths that year, according to the CDC report. Smaller decreases in deaths from other causes, including cancer, heart disease, homicide and unintentional injuries, also contributed to the rise.

The CDC researchers said the increase in life expectancy would have been greater had there not been a rise in deaths from pneumonia and the flu, malnutrition, kidney disease, birth defects and perinatal deaths.

Woolf said the slight increase in flu and pneumonia deaths seen in 2022 — which had the biggest impact on blunting life expectancy — isn’t something to be worried about. Rather, the numbers illustrate a rebound effect: Deaths from non-Covid viruses fell drastically due to masking and physical distancing during the first phase of the pandemic. “Now it’s really returning to normal levels,” he said.

While the unintentional injury category — which saw a decrease — does include overdose deaths, Woolf noted there has not been a drop in these particular deaths, as the opioid epidemic rages on. Instead, he said it was a decrease in car accidents, which had increased nearly 7% during 2020, that caused the drop. 

Malnutrition rising across the country

The CDC report also highlighted what experts say is an alarming increase in deaths from malnutrition in 2022. The researchers estimated these deaths are behind 13% of the downward pull on overall life expectancy. 

A study published earlier this month in the journal BMJ Medicine found deaths from malnutrition in the U.S. increased nearly 2.5-fold between 1999 and 2020. 

Dementia and poverty have both been on the rise, particularly among older adults in the U.S., said Dr. Deborah Kado, a professor of geriatric medicine in the Stanford University department of medicine’s division of primary care and population health.

“Both the loss of cognition as well as loss of income can lead to worse malnutrition,” she said. 

Racial disparities remain

Perinatal mortality, which refers to stillbirth after the 28th week of pregnancy and newborns in the first week of life, increased overall, and contributed 15% to the blunting of life expectancy in 2022, compared to the year before. 

Perinatal mortality was starkest among Black Americans, highlighting deep-seated racial health disparities. It contributed to nearly 60% of the negative pull on life expectancy for Black Americans, at least double the rate of any other race or ethnicity. 

While American Indians and Alaska Natives saw the largest increases in life expectancy between 2021 and 2022, they still experienced the shortest life expectancy — 65.6 years for men and 67.9 years for women — nearly two decades shorter than Asian Americans, who have the highest life expectancy. Unintentional injuries were the largest factor keeping life expectancy from rising more among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S.

Despite improvements, Masters warned the U.S. still has a long way to go in improving public health, a lag that started long before the pandemic. 

The pandemic “was not a health shock as much as people want to portray it to be,” he said. “For the 40 years leading up to the pandemic, the United States was distinguishing itself as being quite poor in health and mortality outcomes.” 

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