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2021 Was the Deadliest Year in American History, Dropping U.S. Life Expectancy By As Much As 6 Years

2021 Was the Deadliest Year in American History, Dropping U.S. Life Expectancy By As Much As 6 Years

The COVID19 pandemic combined with the rise in drug overdoses made 2021 the deadliest year in recorded American history.

COVID-19 deaths rose in 2021 to more than 415,000, up from 351,000 the year before as new coronavirus variants emerged and unexpectedly large numbers of Americans refused to get vaccinated or were hesitant to wear masks, health experts say. But the coronavirus is not solely to blame. Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also shows the crude death rate for cancer rose slightly, and rates continued to increase for diabetes, chronic liver disease, and stroke.

Drug overdose deaths also continued to rise. The CDC does not yet have a tally for 2021 overdose deaths, because it can take weeks of lab work and investigation to identify them. But provisional data through October suggests the nation is on track to see at least 105,000 overdose deaths in 2021 — up from 93,000 the year before. And sadly, new research released Tuesday showed a particularly large jump in overdose deaths among 14- to 18-year-olds.

Adolescent overdose death counts were fairly constant for most of the last decade, at around 500 a year, according to the paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. They almost doubled in 2020, to 954, and the researchers estimated that the total hit nearly 1,150 last year. Experts attributed the spike to fentanyl, a highly lethal drug that has been cut into heroin for several years. More recently it’s also been pressed into counterfeit pills resembling prescription drugs that teens sometimes abuse.

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The total number of U.S. deaths often increases year to year as the U.S. population grows. But 2020 and 2021 saw extraordinary jumps in death numbers and rates, due largely to the pandemic. Those national death trends affect life expectancy — an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live. With rare exceptions, U.S. life expectancy has reliably inched up year after year. But the CDC’s life expectancy estimate for 2020 was about 77 years — more than a year and a half lower than what it was in 2019.

Some experts are skeptical that life expectancy will quickly bounce back. They worry about long-term complications of COVID-19 that may hasten the deaths of people with chronic health problems. CDC researchers think U.S. life expectancy dropped another five or six months in 2021, putting it back to where it was 20 years ago.

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