VCU Wright Center research: Pandemic drives largest decrease in U.S. life expectancy since 1943

graph showing the increasing life expectancy between US and peer countries especially in miniorites

COVID-19 has widened the life expectancy gap across racial groups and between the U.S. and peer countries.

U.S. life expectancy decreased by 1.87 years between 2018 and 2020, a drop not seen since World War II, according to new research from Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Colorado Boulder and the Urban Institute.

The numbers are even worse for people of color. On average, whereas life expectancy among white Americans decreased by 1.36 years in 2020, it decreased by 3.25 years in Black Americans and 3.88 years in Hispanic Americans.

The data was released yesterday in The BMJ, a journal published by the British Medical Association.

Other countries also saw declines in life expectancy between 2018 and 2020, but the loss of life expectancy in the U.S. was 8.5 times that of the average for 16 peer countries. The declines for minority populations were 15 to 18 times larger than other countries.

“When the pandemic came, my naïve assumption was that it would not have a big impact on the preexisting gap between the U.S. and peer countries,” said Steven Woolf, M.D., the study’s lead author and director emeritus of VCU’s Center on Society and Health. “It was a global pandemic, and I assumed that every country would take a hit. What I did not anticipate was how badly the U.S. would fare in the pandemic and the enormous death toll that the U.S. would experience.”

Woolf receives partial funding from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, which supports the Wright Center for Clinical Translational Research where Woolf serves in a community engagement role.

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