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U.S. Life Expectancy Creeps Up as Covid Deaths Fall

Life expectancy in the United States has begun to climb again as the threat of Covid-19 has receded, increasing by more than a year between 2021 and 2022, according to data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rise represents a slow and partial recovery for the country, which tallied more than 1.1 million Covid-19 deaths and lost 2.4 years in life expectancy between 2019 and 2021.

And an array of other conditions continued to pose grave risks to Americans’ health. Deaths from flu, pneumonia, perinatal conditions, kidney disease and birth defects all rose in 2022, the agency reported, partially offsetting the fall in Covid-19 deaths.

“We’re halfway back to what we lost,” said Eileen Crimmins an expert on gerontology and demography at the University of Southern California. “But we certainly have a very long ways to go before we get to where life expectancy should be.”

In 2022, life expectancy at birth was 77.5 years, compared with 76.4 years in 2021. A fall in Covid-19 deaths accounts for more than 80 percent of that increase. In 2019, before the pandemic, life expectancy at birth was 78.8. Drops in deaths from heart disease, unintentional injuries (a category that includes traffic deaths and drug overdoses), cancer and homicide also contributed to the rise in life expectancy, the C.D.C. reported.

Some demographic differences also narrowed in 2022, the data show.

The gains were especially pronounced among Native Americans and Alaska Natives, who were especially hard hit by Covid-19, losing 6.2 years of life expectancy between 2019 and 2021. In 2022, they regained 2.3 years of those years, although their life expectancy of 67.9 remains lower than that of other demographic groups.

Life expectancy rose by 2.2 years for the Hispanic population and 1.6 years for Black Americans. The increases were more modest for Asian and white Americans, who gained 1.0 and 0.8 years of life expectancy, respectively, in 2022.

A longstanding gap in life expectancy between the sexes widened during the pandemic, which brought a higher mortality rate in men than in women. In 2021, women could be expected to live six years longer than men, but that gap closed slightly, to 5.4 years, in 2022.

This narrowing may stem from the fall in Covid-19 deaths and a potential plateauing of the opioid epidemic, said Dr. Brandon Yan, a physician and public health researcher at the University of California San Francisco. “Both of these have historically disproportionately killed men,” he said.

The United States lags behind many other wealthy nations, both for how many years of life expectancy it lost during the pandemic and how slowly it has recovered.

Portugal, for example, had a life expectancy of nearly 82 years in 2022, only marginally lower than before the pandemic. Belgium, too, had nearly returned to its pre-pandemic peak of a 82-year life expectancy by 2022, while Sweden had entirely wiped out its losses from the pandemic and returned to an 83-year life expectancy last year.

Studies in recent years have shown that the pandemic deepened American deficits in survival rates that had been accumulating for decades, reflecting longstanding problems with chronic illness in the United States and the country’s difficulties in responding to Covid.

Despite having one of the world’s most robust stores of vaccines, the country struggled to vaccinate as many people against Covid — and especially older people — as other large and wealthy nations did. And it fell behind in administering booster shots, too, leaving it more vulnerable as the Omicron wave swept the country.

While the C.D.C. said racial and ethnic disparities in life expectancy decreased slightly from 2021 to 2022 for some groups, there remained glaring gaps.

White people, for example, were living nearly 10 years longer on average than Native Americans and Alaska Natives, who were battered by the pandemic and have long faced health problems stemming from poverty, discrimination and underfunded health services.

“The data makes clear that these longstanding inequities have not really been addressed,” said Michael Bird, a former president of the American Public Health Association and a member of the Kewa Pueblo tribe. “It really goes back to poverty and the racism that is still being perpetuated.”

The pandemic was hardest on those who faced the steepest problems to begin with, Mr. Bird said, deepening health problems that have long devastated family and friends.

“It’s not an esoteric experience,” he said. “It’s the reality of knowing people who’ve passed on before their time.”

Suicides also rose 3 percent in 2022, the C.D.C. reported in a separate analysis on Wednesday. The agency had previously reported that the number of suicides had risen to nearly 50,000 in 2022, the most ever recorded in the United States.

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