TUESDAY, June 14, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- In yet another sign that the pandemic has exacerbated disparities in health care, researchers report that the life expectancy of Native Americans plummeted by nearly five years as the new coronavirus raged across the country.
The loss in longevity was far greater than any other ethnic group and about three times higher than whites.
The investigators also found that while comparable countries worldwide rebounded in 2021 from historic life expectancy declines in 2020, the overall U.S. death rate rose even higher.
"With the wide availability of vaccines in the United States, there was a lot of optimism that 2021 would look better than 2020," said study co-author Ryan Masters, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
"That did not happen," he noted in a university news release. "The U.S. didn't take COVID seriously to the extent that other countries did, and we paid a horrific price for it, with Black and brown people suffering the most."
Masters and his colleagues analyzed U.S. death data from 2019 and 2020, along with preliminary data for 2021.
In 2019, the life expectancy of Native Americans was already the lowest of any racial/ethnic group -- 75 years for women and 68.6 years for men. In 2021, those numbers fell to 70.4 for women and just under 64 for men.
"Native American populations have been ostracized and pushed to the margins to the most extreme extent in this country's history, so we expected to see a decline in life expectancy," Masters said.
Native Americans often lack access to vaccines, quality health care and transportation, he noted.
"But the magnitude [of the decrease in life expectancy] was shocking," Masters added. "You just don't see numbers like this in advanced countries in the modern day."
The researchers also found that overall U.S. life expectancy shortened from 78.85 years in 2019 to 76.98 years in 2020 and 76.44 years in 2021, a loss of 2.41 years.
In contrast, comparable countries lost 0.55 years of life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 and had a 0.26 increase between 2020 and 2021.
Social inequities, systemic racism and health disparities, such as high rates of obesity and heart disease, which existed before the pandemic, are to blame for the dismal U.S. trends, according to Masters.
When they focused only on 2021, the researchers found that white Americans had the largest decline in life expectancy among all the U.S. racial groups, possibly due to high rates of vaccine hesitancy and resistance to prevention measures.
The study was published on the preprint server MedRxiv and has not yet been peer-reviewed.
In a previous study, the same team found that overall U.S. life expectancy fell by nearly two years between 2019 and 2020, the largest decline since World War II. The largest declines were among Hispanic people (nearly four years) and Black people (3.25 years), compared with 1.36 years among white people.
For more on U.S. life expectancy, go to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.
SOURCE: University of Colorado at Boulder, news release, June 9, 2022