HAP Blog

How the Pandemic Widened Health Disparities in Life Expectancy

May 25, 2023

The pandemic saw significant declines in U.S. life expectancy and widened existing racial disparities, according to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).

U.S. life expectancy declined 2.7 years from 2019 to 2021, the largest two-year decline since the 1920s. The decline in life expectancy was even greater among Black, Latino, and American Indian and Alaska natives. Those groups were disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“The recent declines and widening of disparities in life expectancy highlight the urgency and importance of addressing disparities in health broadly and increased attention to disparities in mortality and life expectancy specifically,” the report notes.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Overall trend:  The average life expectancy declined to 76.1 years during 2021.
  • Disparities:   American Indian and Alaska natives had the largest decline in life expectancy (6.6 years), followed by Latino and Black people (4.2 years and 4 years, respectively). These groups have life expectancy rates of 65.2 years, 77.7 years, and 70.8 years, respectively.
  • New cause:  COVID-19 contributed significantly to the decline in life expectancy. People of color accounted for 59 percent of excess years of life lost despite making up only 40 percent of the population.
  • Top causes:  The top three leading causes of death during 2021 were heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19.
    • COVID-19 was the top cause of death for the Latino population and American Indian and Alaska natives
    • Liver disease also rose to the ninth leading cause of death, “reflecting sharp increases in alcohol-related deaths during the pandemic”
    • COVID-19 deaths declined 50 percent across all racial and ethnic groups last year, according to provisional data. The top three causes of deaths were heart disease, cancer, and unintentional injuries.
  • Quotable:   “Declining death rates from COVID-19 may improve life expectancy overall, however racial gaps will likely persist given the continued disparities in COVID-19 and other leading causes of death,” the report noted.

“Continued efforts within and beyond the health care system will be important to reduce ongoing racial disparities in life expectancy, many of which are rooted in systemic racism,” the report concluded.

Pennsylvania’s hospitals are committed to addressing health disparities in our communities. HAP’s Racial Health Equity Learning Action Network (RHELAN) convenes Pennsylvania hospitals and health systems to work collaboratively to identify and confront systemic inequality and structural racism in health care. 

The KFF report is available online.

Please login or register to post comments.