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A recent study estimated average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by more than a year in 2020, with the country’s mortality due to COVID-19 skewing toward researchers’ highest death toll projections.

Findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal Thursday by researchers from Princeton and the University of Southern California. The study offered four projections based on total estimates for U.S. coronavirus deaths to Dec. 31, stemming from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

“The U.S. reduction in 2020 life expectancy is projected to exceed that of most other high-income countries, indicating that the United States — which already had a life expectancy below that of all other high-income developed nations prior to the pandemic —will see its life expectancy fall even farther behind its peers,” researchers wrote in the study.


In retrospect, the U.S. nearly fulfilled the higher mortality scenario, which study authors posed at 348,000 deaths by the end of last year. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, there were about 345,900 reported deaths due to the novel virus by Dec. 31. Deaths have since swelled to at least 388,692 as of Friday morning, with the country reporting 3,928 additional deaths in the last day.

If the pandemic didn’t take place, study authors note that a person born in 2020 would, on average, live to about 79 years, though researchers project the grim mortality brought on by the virus shaved almost 1.22 years off of the average life span.

Black and Latino American populations were projected to suffer significantly greater declines in life expectancy as compared to White populations, with the researchers citing “enduring structural inequalities” that raise the risk of death and exposure to COVID-19. In fact, declines in life expectancy among these minorities was projected to approximately triple that for White populations: “Under the higher mortality scenario, life expectancy is projected to be 0.73 [years] lower for the White population, 2.26 [years] lower for the Black population, and 3.28 [years] lower for the Latino population.”

These disparities are consistent with figures released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reports heightened rates of hospitalizations, cases and deaths for Black and Latino populations, compared to White populations, with a nearly tripled death rate, and hospitalization rates among Latino and Black populations exceeding that of White populations by 4.1, 3.7 times, respectively.


Researchers said the greater toll may be tied to lower-paying jobs, job losses and health insurance troubles, but also high-risk exposure among essential workers, crowded housing and reliance on public transportation, among other factors. 

“The greater toll for the Black and Latino populations arises because of both higher COVID-19 mortality rates and greater susceptibility to COVID-19 at younger ages among these groups compared with Whites,” study authors wrote.

Of note, the team examined gaps in life expectancies between racial groups, finding an approximate 39% widening in the “Black-White life expectancy gap,” from 3.6 to more than five years, which researchers say walks back progress made in the last 15 years.