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What Can Stop the Shortening of American Lives?

Although US life expectancy has recovered somewhat since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains lower than it was before 2019, owing to America's world-leading rates of overdoses, gun deaths, and obesity. The politically driven loss of public trust in public health and expertise continues to take a devastating toll.

NEW YORK – Even as COVID-19 recedes into the background of everyday life, the broader decline in US life expectancy is still with us, because too many elected officials refuse to take its causes seriously.

COVID-19 has killed nearly 1.2 million Americans, making it the main reason that US life expectancy fell by 2.4 years between 2019 and 2021. But while life expectancy has started to tick back up, it is still 1.3 years lower than it was in 2019, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every racial and ethnic group now has a lower life expectancy than before the pandemic, with American Indian and Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic people suffering the largest setbacks. Meanwhile, other countries – including Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark – have returned or nearly returned to pre-pandemic life expectancy.

The main reasons that the United States lags many other rich countries can be summed up in three words: guns and drugs. The US far outpaces other high-income countries in overdose and gun deaths, and both problems have worsened since 2019. In fact, they have reached record levels. At the same time, chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are among the leading causes of death in the US. Obesity is a major risk factor for all these conditions, and America’s obesity rate is the highest among large, developed countries.