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U.S. life expectancy is recovering from COVID-19, but still lags

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

U.S. life expectancy is starting to bounce back after taking a serious dip during the peak of the pandemic. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in 2022, the average expected lifespan was 77 1/2 years old. NPR's Pien Huang is here in the studio to put that number into context. Hey, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so 77 1/2, which I gather is better than it was when COVID was doing its worst, but how does it compare to before the pandemic?

HUANG: Well, it's worse than it was before the pandemic.

KELLY: OK.

HUANG: If we rewind back to 2019, those pre-COVID times, U.S. life expectancy at that point was nearly 80 years old. So in the first two years of the pandemic, life expectancy dropped by almost 2 1/2 years, largely because of COVID deaths. And last year, health experts say that because of the impacts of vaccines and treatments, fewer people died from COVID. So the good news is that U.S. life expectancy has started to rise again, but it's not great. I mean, some researchers that I talked with actually called the number sad and bleak. Basically, 77 1/2 years, that's the same life expectancy that the U.S. had in 2003. And that's kind of like 20 years of lost progress.

KELLY: Twenty years of lost progress - so why? Is COVID still at least partly to blame?

HUANG: Yeah. I mean, some of it is that people are still dying of COVID. It's still - it's now the fourth-leading cause of death. And another part of it is that the U.S. continues to see a lot of early deaths from causes that have been around for a long time. Here's Elizabeth Arias, a demographer with the CDC.

ELIZABETH ARIAS: The main causes of death are pretty stable. So for instance, heart disease has been the leading cause of death for a long time, followed by cancer.

HUANG: The third cause right now is unintentional injuries, which includes car accidents and drownings and drug overdoses, which has been a huge growing source of deaths in the past few years. Other leading causes include stroke, Alzheimer's and diabetes. And the U.S. also has high rates of maternal mortality and infant mortality compared with other wealthy countries. So all of these are causing early deaths in the U.S., and it's driving life expectancy down.

KELLY: You just mentioned other wealthy countries. How does the U.S. compare to them?

HUANG: Not well. So in other wealthy countries in Europe and in Asia, the average life expectancy is well over 80 years old. Here's Eileen Crimmins, a gerontologist at University of Southern California.

EILEEN CRIMMINS: We are terrible. We're the absolute lowest. We've been dropping relative to everyone else for years.

HUANG: So Crimmins says that the gap between the U.S. and these other wealthy countries, it's been growing since the 1980s, and it hasn't stopped.

KELLY: And I'll point out the obvious, that other wealthy countries also had COVID and suffered through the pandemic. Why is there this huge gap?

HUANG: Well, Crimmins says that it's because other wealthy countries are better at keeping people from dying early from things like heart disease, gun violence, complications around giving birth, vaccine-preventable diseases. The silver lining here is that, she says, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can learn from what other countries have done. You know, they've made basic health care accessible to people. They've provided better care and support around childbirth. They've passed stricter gun laws. So she and others say that they hope these numbers are a wake-up call for the public and for policy-makers to change things for the better and to reduce the amount of early preventable deaths here in the U.S.

KELLY: Thank you, Pien.

HUANG: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR health correspondent Pien Huang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.