Is 2020 the deadliest year for the US? Covid-19 pandemic may cut American life expectancy by 3 years, says CDC

For comparison, around 659,041 people died of heart disease in the US in 2019 and around 599,601 from cancer. The third-leading cause of death, accidents, killed an estimated 173,040.


                            Is 2020 the deadliest year for the US? Covid-19 pandemic may cut American life expectancy by 3 years, says CDC
(Getty Images)

The US is on track to record its deadliest year in history, primarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic, even as health experts say that overall life expectancy may drop by three years. According to a preliminary analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the country could see over 3.2 million deaths in 2020, far more than the 2,854,838 deaths from all causes recorded in 2019.

That would make it the first time when annual deaths in the country would cross 3 million. It would also reverse the gains made in 2019. Deaths usually increase every year, and therefore, an annual rise in fatalities is expected. However, in 2020, the numbers are expected to go up by 15%. Once deaths from all causes are counted from December, the toll could potentially go even higher. 

Life expectancy improved in 2019

Before the pandemic struck, there was reason to be hopeful about US death trends in 2020. According to the final 2019 US mortality data on deaths and death rates, released by the CDC, life expectancy for the US population in 2019 was 78.8 years, an increase of 0.1 year, from 78.7 years in 2018. The increase was largely because of decreases in deaths from cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, influenza and pneumonia, suicide, and stroke.

“In 2019, a total of 2,854,838 resident deaths were registered in the US, 15,633 more deaths than in 2018. From 2018 to 2019, the age-adjusted death rate for the total population decreased 1.2%, and life expectancy at birth increased 0.1 year,” says the report. For males, life expectancy changed 0.1 year from 76.2 in 2018 to 76.3 in 2019. For females, life expectancy increased 0.2 year from 81.2 years in 2018 to 81.4 in 2019. 

Life expectancy at birth and age 65, by sex: US, 2018 and 2019 (National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality)

“It was actually a pretty good year for mortality, as things go,” Robert Anderson from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told the Associated Press, adding that life expectancy for 2020 could end up declining as much as three full years.

In 2019, the 10 leading causes of death (heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, kidney disease, influenza and pneumonia, and suicide) remained the same as in 2018, although two causes exchanged ranks. Influenza and pneumonia, the eighth leading cause in 2018, became the ninth leading cause in 2019, while kidney disease, the ninth leading cause in 2018, became the eighth leading cause in 2019. 

2020 has been deadly

Initial data suggest that as of December 22, 2020, 2,835,533 Americans have died from all causes. This includes 288,287 deaths from coronavirus. However, the numbers are not final. According to the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 tracker, over 322,580 Americans have already died in the pandemic, and more than 18,217,150 cases have been reported from across the US.

For comparison, around 659,041 people died of heart disease in the US in 2019 and around 599,601 from cancer. The third-leading cause of death, accidents, killed an estimated 173,040.

According to the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 tracker, over 322,580 Americans have already died in the pandemic, and more than 18,217,150 cases have been reported from across the US (Getty Images)

Drug overdose deaths have also gone up in the US. Provisional data shows that after declining 4.1% from 2017 to 2018, the number of overdose deaths increased by 18.2% from the 12-months ending in June 2019 to the 12-months ending in May 2020. The largest increase was recorded from March 2020 to May 2020, coinciding with the implementation of widespread mitigation measures for the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to researchers, the increases in drug overdose deaths “appear to have accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic.” CDC Director Dr Robert Redfield said that the disruption to daily life due to the Covid-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences,” he advised. 

According to Anderson, who leads the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics mortality-statistics section, there has been an “unexpected number of deaths” from some types of heart and circulatory diseases, diabetes and dementia. “Many of those, too, may be related to Covid-19. The virus could have weakened patients already struggling with those conditions, or could have diminished the care they were getting,” he noted. 

Anderson also told The Wall Street Journal that he used data through August 2020 to determine that life expectancy had dropped by approximately 1.5 years. For the full year, he expects that life expectancy could fall by two to three years. “We’ve had a lot of deaths added since August, so I think a drop of two to three years for 2020 isn’t out of the question,” he said. 

Anderson explained that this would be the greatest decline in life expectancy since 1943 when fatalities in the second world war led to a 2.9-year decline in life expectancy. In 1918, 25 years before that, the Spanish flu caused an 11.8-year decline in life expectancy, and that was because it was especially deadly for children, whose deaths led to a disproportionate decline in life expectancy.

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