U.S. Life Expectancy Falls, CDC Finds 0:43

(CNN) -- Life expectancy in the United States began to recover after historic declines early in the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is far from recovering.

In 2022, a 1.1-year increase raised overall life expectancy at birth to 77.5 years, according to interim data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that makes up for less than half of the 2.4 years of life lost in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, and life expectancy is still lower than it has been in about 20 years.

According to the CDC report, declining mortality from Covid-19 was the key factor driving the increase in life expectancy, for both men and women, and across all racial and ethnic groups. But Covid-19 remains one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., and experts say that continuing to decline mortality from the virus will go a long way toward improving life expectancy.

"In 2022, the number of deaths from Covid-19 was not insignificant," said Elizabeth Arias, a researcher at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics and lead author of the report, which was released Wednesday. "Holding everything else constant, we would need to see another big decrease in Covid mortality for life expectancy to increase."

About 245,000 people died from Covid-19 in 2022, up from about 385,000 deaths in 2020 and more than 462,000 deaths in 2021, according to CDC data.

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"We only recovered about half of the loss [in life expectancy], and for some groups, it's even less," Arias said. "We would need the same pattern that we saw in 2022 again in 2023 and then, perhaps, the following year to fully compensate for the loss," he added.

Life expectancy increased the most among American Indians (2.3 years added in 2022), but that made up for only about one-third of the "staggering" 6.2 years of life previously lost during the pandemic. American Indians had a life expectancy of 67.9 years in 2022, lower than any other racial or ethnic group.

Whites have a longer life expectancy than blacks in the United States, but that gap has been narrowing over the past three decades, according to the CDC report. In 2022, whites had the smallest uptick in life expectancy, further narrowing that gap. Life expectancy for blacks was 72.8 years in 2022, compared to 77.5 years for whites.

The life expectancy gap between men and women in the U.S. widened significantly during the Covid-19
pandemic Life expectancy among Hispanics and Asians is higher than average, and that advantage also increased in 2022, reaching 80 years among Hispanics and 84.5 years among Asians, as shown by CDC data.

But the Hispanic population alone recovered more than half of the years of life lost in the first two years of the pandemic.

The U.S. is falling behind in life expectancy for decades, and experts say the challenges in making up for lost years of life run deeper than the pandemic.

"During the decade leading up to Covid-19, life expectancy in the United States stagnated, while it continued to rise in other countries, resulting in a dramatic widening of the gap between the United States and other countries," said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Commonwealth of Virginia. University Center for Society and Health. He was not involved in the new CDC report, but published research on life expectancy trends.

"The factors responsible for this didn't go away during the pandemic," Woolf said, citing drug overdose deaths, suicides, obesity and diabetes, among others. "All of that played out directly in the pandemic, so part of what you're seeing in the non-Covid conditions that are contributing to slowing progress are these pre-existing issues that were already claiming lives before the pandemic."

According to CDC data, lower mortality from heart disease, unintentional injury, cancer, and homicide also helped increase life expectancy in 2022 overall. But some of these gains were offset by increased mortality from influenza and pneumonia, perinatal conditions, kidney disease, and nutritional deficiencies. And the determinants were not consistent across demographic groups.

Unintentional injury deaths, which are mostly fatal drug overdoses, were the driving factor behind the flattening of life expectancy in the decade before the Covid-19 pandemic, Arias said. That trend "reversed" for the white population, but remained a "very negative factor" for other groups.

In contrast to overall trends, mortality from unintentional injuries, such as drug overdoses and homicides, increased among American Indians and Hispanics in 2022 and was the leading factor preventing further gains in life expectancy, according to CDC data.

And among blacks, higher mortality from perinatal conditions was the main factor offsetting the increase in life expectancy.

"The slow recovery has a lot to do with America's systemic health disadvantage, which was already claiming lives before the pandemic," Woolf said.

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