COVID-19 and Drug Overdose Deaths Drive U.S. Life Expectancy Down


(Washington, DC – January 17, 2023) — Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December 2022 showed that U.S. life expectancy decreased from 77 years in 2020 to 76.4 years in 2021, the second consecutive year that U.S. life expectancy decreased. The last time the U.S. experienced a two-year decrease in life expectancy was during World War II.

Age-specific death rates from 2020 to 2021 increased for all age groups other than infants less than one year old. American Indian and Alaska Native females experienced the largest increase in death rates, jumping 7.3 percent in 2021. Lower life expectancy for some populations groups, disproportionately among people of color, have been attributed to the structural inequities and barriers to optimal health that those communities experience.

Heart disease remained the leading cause of death in the U.S. during 2021 followed by cancer and COVID-19. In addition, drug overdose accounted for over a third of all unintentional deaths. During 2021, 106,699 people died in the U.S. due to a drug overdose, a 14 percent increase in the overdose death rate over 2020.

“These data underscore the importance of TFAH’s work to advance public health, prevention, and health equity,” said TFAH President and CEO J. Nadine Gracia, MD, MSCE. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact of social and economic conditions on people’s health and a community’s ability to be resilient during an emergency. TFAH will remain steadfast in advocating for policies that promote optimal health and well-being for every person and community. Among our priorities are supporting policies and programs that will strengthen the nation’s public health workforce and data systems; investment in substance misuse and suicide prevention including school-based mental health services and primary prevention programs; increased investments in chronic disease prevention programs including obesity prevention; and addressing the social determinants of health.”

Learn more about the causes of declining U.S. life expectancy in this TFAH issue brief: U.S. Experienced Steepest Two-year Decline in Life Expectancy in a Century – TFAH

For more on TFAH’s recommendations to improve the nation’s emergency preparedness: Ready or Not 2022: Protecting the Public’s Health from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism – TFAH

For more on TFAH’s recommendations on needed investments in the nation’s public health system: The Impact of Chronic Underfunding on America’s Public Health System: Trends, Risks, and Recommendations, 2022 – TFAH

For more on TFAH’s recommendations on addressing the nation’s drug, alcohol and suicide crisis: Pain in the Nation 2022: U.S. Experienced Highest Ever Combined Rates of Deaths Due to Alcohol, Drugs, and Suicide During the First Year of the COVID-19 Pandemic – TFAH

For more on TFAH’s recommendations to address the nation’s obesity crisis: State of Obesity 2022: Better Policies for a Healthier America – TFAH