The coronavirus pandemic affected countries throughout the world and lowered life expectancy rates for many nations — especially the U.S. — but a new study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that racially diverse populations such as Native American and Hispanic demographics were the hardest hit early on in the pandemic, but were later trumped by the white population.
“I think we also know as an American society that anytime a catastrophe or just some (sort) of a challenge like this occurs, it does tend to fall very much along racialized lines, among socioeconomic status lines — that people will suffer to much greater extents than other people will, and that’s a choice — that’s what we are electing to do and live with as a society,” said Ryan Masters, associate professor of sociology at CU Boulder.
Masters co-authorized the study that published earlier this month that examined the life expectancy changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic across five U.S. ethnic and racial groups in comparison to 21 peer countries. The study was the first to estimate changes in life expectancy during the pandemic for non-Hispanic Native American, Native Alaskan and Asian populations.
Studying the life expectancy rates of different populations is important because it provides a snapshot of mortality conditions during a specific time period for every population, Masters said.
“It’s a very useful measure to gauge, especially in the event of a pandemic or rapidly changing mortality conditions, just how severe the mortality conditions changed for one population versus another,” he said.
In 2019, the National Center for Health Statistics produced the first life expectancy data for Asian, Native American and Native Alaskan populations in the U.S., Masters said. That data served as a benchmark for Masters and the other researchers to measure the changes the populations have experienced since then.
“As a nation, we tend to be blind to health trends in our Indigenous population because of challenges to collecting accurate data,” said co-author Steven Woolf, director emeritus of Family Medicine and Population Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, in the news release. “Our study provides a rare glimpse into the scale of the disparities they live with and reminds us of the need for systemic change.”
The paper was also co-authored by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Washington, D.C.,-based Urban Institute.
Between 2020 and 2021, the life expectancy among the Asian population decreased by about 1.8-1.9 years. Life expectancy among the Hispanic population decreased by about 3.7 years, and the non-Hispanic Black population lost about 3.2 years. The population that saw sharpest decline was the Native America population, whose life expectancy declined by 4.3% or by more than four years for Native American women and by more than 4.75 years for Native American men.
“We know that when calamities in this size affect the population, they tend to disproportionately affect those populations that are most vulnerable — that are most forgotten, most ostracized, (but) we were not expecting an almost five-year decline among the women and male Native American population,” Masters said.
The study did not dive into the underlying reasons of why the Native American population saw the sharpest decline in life expectancy among other U.S. populations. Masters said researchers know from existing work that the populations’ high rate of diabetes, obesity, mental health issues and substance issues, coupled with ongoing mistreatment of the population by the government, has left the population incredibly vulnerable.
He added that he believes the life expectancy for Native America and Alaskan Native men rebounded slightly in 2021 because of COVID-19 vaccine campaign efforts by some tribes.
Masters said after losses of this magnitude, the overall U.S. mortality rate is predicted to bounce back, but the country’s life expectancy has remained fairly stagnant for about a decade in comparison to other countries that continue to see growth.
From 2010 to 2019, the U.S. population gained 0.2 years of life expectancy. Most countries gain anywhere from .08 to 0.2 years on an annual basis, Masters said.
“We’re starting to see a tip of the iceberg of the long-term exposure to the U.S. obesogenic environment coupled with the elevated drug-related death increases and firearm deaths increases and transportation injuries — all of those things are really spotlighting an increasingly lethal and unhealthy environment in the United States that was already in place prior to the pandemic and so the pandemic just hit us at the worst possible time,” he said.