With U.S. life expectancy down again, we must take stock of our health

The statistics are alarming, but we can do our part to stay healthy, including by staying on top of our COVID-19 booster shots.

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A Jackson, Miss., resident receives a Pfizer booster shot from a nurse at a vaccination site Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Last week. the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed updated COIVD-19 boosters against BA.4 and BA.5, the newest subtypes of the coronavirus omicron variant.

COVID-19 booster shots are essential to continuing the fight against the coronavirus, which is the leading cause of the sharp decline in life expectancy in the U.S.


There is no question that the last 2 12 years have been bleak for everyone around the world, including those of us living in the United States.

Some people hit rock bottom mentally, perhaps because of job loss or losing quality time with friends and family due to the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. But those folks, in a sense, were the lucky ones.

Others lost far more: At latest count, over 1.04 million people in the U.S. had died from complications related to COVID-19, and that tally continues to creep up by nearly 500 deaths each day.

Last week brought the latest stark and sobering news related to U.S. mortality since the coronavirus upended society: The nation’s life expectancy declined for the second year in a row in 2021, to 76.1 years, according to a provisional analysis released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.



U.S. life expectancy is now the lowest it has been since 1996.

In 2020, the average American was expected to live 77 years, down from nearly 78.8 years in 2019. The decrease between 2019 and 2021 is the biggest two-year decline in almost 100 years, the CDC says. While COVID-19 is mostly to blame, accidents and unintentional injuries — especially the nationwide epidemic of drug overdoses — are the second-leading cause of the decline.

While medical experts say the statistics are cause for alarm, we can do our part to protect ourselves by making healthy choices, including staying on top of our vaccinations against COVID-19.

Modified booster shots, designed to thwart the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron strains, were endorsed by the CDC Thursday, which means they will be available soon. Don’t put off getting jabbed — something we don’t mind repeating because too many people have blown off getting vaccinated or have been lax about following up with the recommended boosters. Only half of vaccinated Americans have received their first booster dose, and only a third of those 50 and older have gotten their recommended second booster.

Among American Indian and Alaskan Native people, life expectancy fell most dramatically, from 71.8 years in 2019 to 65.2 years in 2021. Black, Hispanic, Asian and white Americans also experienced declines.

Roughly 16% of the decline can be attributed to accidents and unintentional injuries, including drug overdoses that killed a record 100,000-plus people in 2021. That’s strong evidence for more drug rehabilitation programs and access to mental health services.

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Making Chicago healthier

In Chicago, the Department of Public Health last week released its findings on deaths during the first year of the pandemic. The analysis found that heart disease surpassed COVID-19 as the leading factor driving the decline in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020.

People of color, particularly Black and Hispanic Chicagoans, were affected the most, according to CDPH, which has been focusing on bridging the “racial life expectancy gap” through its five-year Healthy Chicago 2025 initiative.

Designed to address structural racism in health care, the city’s has committed $30 million to establish Healthy Chicago Equity Zones to help community groups that are working “on the ground” to connect people to health care resources.

The Cook County Department of Public Health also has a similar strategy, called WePlan 2025, in place for the area suburbs.

Any program aimed at ensuring that Chicago area residents live longer and have easy access to quality care is encouraging and is money well spent.

Meanwhile, all of us must remember to take small steps every day to help keep many health problems — heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure — at bay.

Go for a jog or a walk. Eat more vegetables. Get a good night’s rest. Seek therapy if you’re feeling down.

The numbers on life expectancy are disheartening, especially for the wealthiest nation on earth. But we can do our part to boost the odds in our favor.

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