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New CDC life expectancy data show painfully slow rebound from COVID

Life expectancy in the US peaked at 78.9 years in 2014, then dropped or remained flat through 2019, data show. The new CDC data, despite showing an improvement in 2022, suggested that this period of disappointing life expectancy will continue.Thierry Zoccolan/Photographer: Thierry Zoccolan/A

Newly published data on life expectancy in the United States shows a partial rebound from the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic, but drug overdoses, homicides, and chronic illnesses such as heart disease continue to drive a long-term mortality crisis that has made this country an outlier in longevity among wealthy nations.

Life expectancy in 2022 rose more than a full year, to 77.5 years, in data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than four-fifths of this positive jump was attributable to a drop in COVID-19 deaths.

But the rebound in 2022, which the CDC had anticipated after studying death rates, regained less than half the years lost to the pandemic, the federal health agency reported.

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“The amount of recovery is not as much as we’d like to see,” Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, said after reviewing the report.

He said many peer countries suffered smaller drops in life expectancy and rebounded more quickly from COVID-19′s impact.

"It’s disturbing but not surprising to me that we have not experienced the recovery that other countries have," Woolf said.

In 2019, US life expectancy at birth stood at 78.8 years. That figure cratered to 76.4 in 2021, the lowest since 1996. That was due partly to the extraordinary wave of COVID deaths in January and February of that year as the United States had only begun to roll out vaccines. The following winter saw another short but intense wave of deaths as the omicron variant of the virus reached the country, creating the last major surge in pandemic deaths.

“There appears to have been some recovery from COVID, but we still have a way to go,” said William Schaffner, an infectious-disease physician at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

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“COVID remains with us and continues to put people in the hospital, and has a substantial mortality rate associated with it, particularly among older people and people who are immunocompromised,” Schaffner said.

The rise in certain chronic diseases in the United States — and slower progress in combating others — put the nation in a vulnerable position when the novel virus arrived. A scattered and politically polarized response to the pandemic played a role in the dire death toll that followed, as did resistance to vaccination and other public health measures. No other wealthy country experienced such a high rate of death per capita from COVID.

The new numbers are clearly positive — compared with 2021. But the same data show the dramatic, and protracted, impact of the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2021, life expectancy dropped 2.4 years, and the 2022 jump restored only 1.1. years of that deficit. (Men lost 2.8 years in those first two years, and women 2.1 years.)

Life expectancy rose in a relatively steady fashion for all of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. But starting in 2010, the country entered a decade of stagnation in this key metric. Drug overdoses, homicides, and suicides played major roles in flattening the life expectancy curve. But the greatest erosion in life spans comes from chronic illnesses, The Post found in its analysis of death data.

Life expectancy peaked at 78.9 in 2014, and then dipped or remained flat through 2019. The new CDC data, despite showing an improvement in 2022, suggests that this period of disappointing life expectancy will continue.

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“The pattern is consistent with the stagnation that we’ve seen since 2010,” said Elizabeth Arias, a demographer with the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and lead author of the new report.

"Even without the pandemic, life expectancy was flat or declining," Arias said. "This is a whole new territory that we’re in, beginning a decade ago."

Very few countries have yet published life expectancy data for 2022, as reflected in records at the international human mortality database. The few that have, however, all show quicker recovery from the pandemic.

Sweden in 2022 was back to the same life expectancy as before COVID, 83.1 years, more than 5 1/2 years longer than in the United States.

In 2022, Belgium, Denmark, and Norway had just slightly lower life expectancy than before the pandemic.

Among countries reporting data for 2022, Finland comes closest to the profile of the United States in terms of recovery from the devastation wrought by the pandemic. In Finland, life expectancy was down 0.6 years compared with 2019. But that loss is less than half of the US decrease of 1.3 years since 2019.