The reports of how COVID-19 changed U.S. life expectancy are grim.
The pandemic crushed life expectancy in the United States last year by 1.5 years, the largest drop since World War II, according to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released Wednesday. For Black and Hispanic people, their life expectancy declined by three years.
U.S. life expectancy declined from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020. The pandemic was responsible for close to 74 percent of that overall decline, though increased fatal drug overdoses and homicides also contributed.
“I myself had never seen a change this big except in the history books,” Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the CDC and lead author of the new report, told The Wall Street Journal.
The figures for just COVID-19's impact on U.S. life expectancy are roughly in line with the CDC's preliminary estimates from February 2021, which was based on the then-available data through the first half of 2020.
Unfortunately, the CDC's estimates are rather misleading. Dr. Peter Bach, the director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, ran some back of the envelope calculations after the CDC released its preliminary estimates and came up with very different results.
The CDC reported that life expectancy in the U.S. declined by one year in 2020. People understood this to mean that Covid-19 had shaved off a year from how long each of us will live on average. That is, after all, how people tend to think of life expectancy. The New York Times characterized the report as “the first full picture of the pandemic’s effect on American expected life spans.”
But wait. Analysts estimate that, on average, a death from Covid-19 robs its victim of around 12 years of life. Approximately 400,000 Americans died Covid-19 in 2020, meaning about 4.8 million years of life collectively vanished. Spread that ghastly number across the U.S. population of 330 million and it comes out to 0.014 years of life lost per person. That’s 5.3 days. There were other excess deaths in 2020, so maybe the answer is seven days lost per person.
No matter how you look at it, the result is a far cry from what the CDC announced.
We built the following tool to do Bach's math, which checks out. You're welcome to update the figures with improved data or to replace them with other countries' data if you want to see the impact elsewhere in the world. If you're accessing this article on a site that republishes our RSS news feed, please click through to our site to access a working version of the tool.
So why is the CDC's estimate of the change in life expectancy estimate so different? As Bach explains, it is not because of either the data or the math, but rather, it is because of the CDC's assumptions in doing their math:
It’s not that the agency made a math mistake. I checked the calculations myself, and even went over them with one of the CDC analysts. The error was more problematic in my view: The CDC relied on an assumption it had to know was wrong.
The CDC’s life expectancy calculations are, in fact, life expectancy projections (the technical term for the measure is period life expectancy). The calculation is based on a crucial assumption: that for the year you are studying (2019 compared to 2020 in this case) the risk of death, in every age group, will stay as it was in that year for everyone born during it.
So to project the life expectancy of people born in 2020, the CDC assumed that newborns will face the risk of dying that newborns did in 2020. Then when they turn 1, they face the risk of dying that 1-year-olds did in 2020. Then on to them being 2 years old, and so on.
Locking people into 2020 for their entire life spans, from birth to death, may sound like the plot of a dystopian reboot of “Groundhog Day.” But that’s the calculation. The results: The CDC’s report boils down to a finding that bears no relation to any realistic scenario. Running the 2020 gauntlet for an entire life results in living one year less on average than running that same gauntlet in 2019.
Don’t blame the method. It’s a standard one that over time has been a highly useful way of understanding how our efforts in public health have succeeded or fallen short. Because it is a projection, it can (and should) serve as an early warning of how people in our society will do in the future if we do nothing different from today.
But in this case, the CDC should assume, as do we all, that Covid-19 will cause an increase in mortality for only a brief period relative to the span of a normal lifetime. If you assume the Covid-19 risk of 2020 carries forward unabated, you will overstate the life expectancy declines it causes.
In effect, the CDC's assumption projects the impact of COVID-19 in a world in which none of the Operation Warp Speed vaccines exist seeing as they only began rolling out in large numbers in the latter half of December 2020.
When the CDC repeats its life expectancy exercise next year, its estimates of the change in life expectancy should reflect the first year impact of the new COVID-19 vaccines, which will make for an interesting side by side comparison. Especially when comparisons of pre-vaccine case and death rates with post-vaccine data already look like the New Stateman's chart for the United Kingdom: