Dec 22, 2022 - Health

U.S. life expectancy fell again in 2021 amid pandemic, opioid crisis

Change in U.S. death rate by cause, 2020 to 2021
Data: CDC National Center for Health Statistics; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

U.S. life expectancy fell to 76.4 years last year from 77 years in 2020, driven by the effects of the pandemic as well as the opioid epidemic, according to final mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why it matters: It is the second consecutive year that life expectancy has fallen. COVID-19 was the fastest-growing cause of death in 2021, followed closely by unintentional injuries, which include overdose deaths.

By the numbers: There were more than 3.4 million deaths in the U.S. in 2021, an increase of 80,502 over the total reported in 2020.

  • The death rate rose 5.3%, increasing from 835.4 deaths per 100,000 people to 879.7.
  • The leading cause of death in 2021 in the U.S. was heart disease, followed by cancer and COVID-19.
  • There were 106,699 drug overdose deaths in 2021, nearly 16% higher than the 91,799 deaths in 2020. Overdose fatalities involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl increased 22% from 17.8 per 100,000 people in 2020 to 21.8 per 100,000 people in 2021.

Be smart: Influenza and pneumonia, which saw sharp drops early in the pandemic, fell off the list of top 10 leading causes of death last year. But flu activity has returned with a vengeance in 2022, already accounting for at least 9.300 deaths, per the CDC.

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