DECEMBER 22, 2022
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a grim announcement. For the second year in a row, American life expectancy declined. In 2019, there were 715 deaths for every 100,000 Americans and life expectancy at birth hit 78.8 years. In 2021, there were nearly 880 deaths per 100,000 people and life expectancy at birth dropped to 76.4 years.
The ongoing death toll from the coronavirus pandemic played a central role, as did deaths from drug overdoses, particularly opioids. But the scale of the drop in life expectancy is also a function of who is dying. More people are dying at a younger age, which drives expectancy lower than deaths among the elderly.
I spoke with Stanford University’s Shripad Tuljapurkar in 2021 about life expectancy. He made precisely this point about the effects of younger deaths.
“If you kill somebody off at age 50, the effect on the life expectancy is much greater than if you kill somebody off at age 75, to put it bluntly,” he said. “Consequently, we do see drops in life expectancy simply because we are losing younger people at a rate that we wouldn’t have predicted.”
In the last two years, younger people have in fact seen a larger increase in deaths. Using CDC data (including provisional figures for 2021), we see that the rate of deaths among Americans under the age of 25 rose 2.5 percent between the average value in 2018 and 2019 and the average for 2020 and 2021. For those 65 and over, deaths increased nearly 20 percent, heavily due to covid-19. For those aged 25 to 64, though, the increase was even higher, just shy of 24 percent.
You can see that below. The number of deaths in 2020 and 2021 rose significantly from teens upward as the pandemic killed more than a million people. But notice the data on covid-19 deaths in 2020 versus 2021: the death toll skewed younger. We can attribute this in part to resistance to vaccination against the virus, which was more common among those under the age of 65 — given how deadly the virus was for those over the age of 65 in 2020.
On a state-by-state basis, we can see how that looks. Below, the change in the number of deaths is shown for each of 11 age groups. The percentage of increase (darker purple) is consistently larger at the middle of the graph — not children, not elderly — than at the edges.
We can also see politics at play. A disproportionate number of covid-19 deaths in 2021 occurred in states that supported former president Donald Trump in 2020, places where the delta variant surged during the summer and vaccination rates were lower.
According to CDC data, there were about 378,000 more deaths in 2020 and 2021 than in 2018 and 2019 among those aged 65 and over. There were also about 137,000 more deaths among those aged 25 to 64 — a larger increase relative to the 2018-2019 baseline.
That increase is one reason that the country’s life expectancy fell. Americans were dying more — and younger.