The coronavirus pandemic has widened the life expectancy gap between the United States and other high-income countries, a new study finds, and experts say it could take decades to overcome.
The gap in life expectancy between the United States and other comparable countries had already rose from 1.88 years in 2010 to 3.05 years in 2018, according to a study published Wednesday in The BMJ, a peer-reviewed journal of the British Medical Association.
Butresearchers at Virginia Commonwealth University found that the gap had widened dramatically to 4.69 years between 2018 and 2020. This decrease in life expectancy over the past two years was 8.5 times the average decrease in peer countries.
âThe United States has seen a massive drop in life expectancy in 2020 on a scale not seen since World War II,â said study author Dr Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “It’s quite astonishing and it has not been experienced on this scale by other countries.”
From 2018 to 2020, American men saw a greater decrease in life expectancy than women, to 2.16 years from 1.5 years. Life expectancy fell the most among blacks and Latinospopulations, decreasing by 3.25 years and 3.88 years respectively.
âWe had made progress over the past few years in reducing the mortality gap between blacks and whites. All of that progress was wiped out in 2020, âWoolf said. “In the Latinx population, there is a well-known advantage that the community has a higher life expectancy, and that advantage has been almost completely wiped out by the pandemic.”
The study included 16 countries in its analysis: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Israel, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and United Kingdom .
Countries normally included in these types of analyzes – such as Germany, Italy, Australia, Japan and Canada – were absent from the study, said Jessica Ho, assistant professor of gerontology, sociology and of space science at the University of Southern California, which was not affiliated with the study.
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Canada is a particularly important data point, Ho said, because it has similar demographics, including indigenous populations, a common border with the United States, and multiple increases in coronavirus cases.
But she said including those countries in the study would not have significantly changed her results, as America’s public health system was in poor shape long before the pandemic.
âComing in, we already expected the United States to be hit harder, but the question was how much that would set us back,â Ho said.
A country’s life expectancy is shaped by its health care system, personal health behaviors, social and economic factors, the physical and social environment, and public policies. Even if the United States solved all these problems overnight, Ho said it would still take decades to catch up with other high-income countries.
âIf we do everything perfectly, we can increase (life expectancy) by 2.5 years every ten years,â she said.
samein this ideal scenario, it would have taken about 12 years for the United States to catch up in 2018, assuming the life expectancy of other countries remains the same. The pandemic has brought the United States back to 19.
Butall hope is not lost, Ho said. It is possible that life expectancy in the United States will recover next year. After the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, men’s life expectancy fell to 36.6 years,but rose to 53.5 the following year, according to data from the University of California at Berkeley.
“Quite unhealthy people have died during COVID when they could have died in 2022 or 2023 or 2024,” she said, noting that the COVID-19 setback may not be permanent and the country could rebound .
But Woolf said a rapid recovery is not guaranteed as Americans continue to grapple with the health and economic ramifications of COVID-19.
âThe systemic factors that led to this catastrophe are the same systemic factors that caused the United States to fall behind other countries for many years,â he said. “And if they continue to persist, we will see the lives of Americans continue to deteriorate compared to life in other countries.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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