New paper suggests declining U.S. life expectancy should be addressed at neighborhood level

November 14, 2022

Contact: Jon Meerdink (meerdink@umich.edu)

ANN ARBOR — Declines in life expectancy in the United States point to looming problems that could be exacerbated by inequalities in the healthcare system.

A new paper published by Grace Noppert, Kate Duchowny, and Philippa Clarke notes that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. life expectancy declined to 76.1 years in 2021, a 2.7 year drop from 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic was a key factor in the decline, but Noppert says there are additional reasons to be concerned.

“Life expectancy is an interesting indicator. I think it’s more of a signal of the underlying health of a population than anything else,” she said. “Looking at the data, you see large racial disparities in who’s experienced the heaviest declines. As a social epidemiologist, that tells me a lot of what’s happening with health inequities more generally.”

Noppert believes consequences related to the pandemic are driving overall life expectancy down, especially among minority populations. The study showed that among indigenous populations, for instance, unintentional injuries were a significant factor in declines in life expectancy.

“And within that category, we know that drug overdoses have been on the rise. My hypothesis around all of this is that those are consequences of just how much despair and trauma and stress  certain populations have experienced,” Noppert said. “That was happening before. I think it’s been exaggerated by the pandemic.”

The data explored in the paper may be an indicator of tough times ahead, particularly as the numbers pertain to the consequences of virus-related illnesses and deaths. The U.S. population appears to be unusually susceptible to the effects of pandemics, and may be growing even more susceptible due to long-standing structural issues in the U.S. society especially at the neighborhood level. For a variety of reasons including historical and contemporary processes of structural racism and oppression, some neighborhoods were hit dramatically harder by the pandemic than others, and Noppert believes that working to address neighborhood-level population health may yield good returns long term.

“If we see neighborhoods that have lost more businesses and have lost funding for schools and have lost population, and we start to invest in those neighborhoods more heavily and bolster the resources that they have to support their population and help them weather the storm, then I think we could actually mitigate some of the social and economic fallout that, that we’re anticipating.”

Read the full paper online via The BMJ.