Life Expectancy Plunges! … or Does It?

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen – 23 July 2021

The media is alive with the shocking news that “U.S. Life Expectancy Plunged in 2020, Especially for Black and Hispanic Americans”.  And, amazingly, this is not fake news, it is actually true-ish.  Yes, true-ish – as in sorta true — but it does not mean what you think it means.

The man-or-woman-on-the-street, and maybe readers here,  probably thinks that the “life expectancy” mentioned in the headlines really means how long a person can expect to live – as it might apply to themselves or their children.  But, of course, that is not what it really means at all.

The metric “Life Expectancy at Birth” (LE@B) – is a statistical creature,  a construct which is well-defined in the world of national vital statistics  but just not really very relatable to the lives of individuals.  Here’s the shocking graph on which the headlines are based:

Gee, just look at that drop from 2019 to 2020!  The New York Times says that “The 18-month drop, the steepest decline since World War II, was fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.”   And, by the way, for non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic blacks, fueled an increase in drug overdoses (assumed to be unintentional).   Now, the chart and the numbers are “only a snapshot in time of the general health of a population: If an American child was born today and lived an entire life under the conditions of 2020, that child would be expected to live 77.3 years, down from 78.8 in 2019.” and “It was the steepest decline in life expectancy in the United States since World War II.”  [source]

But, that is nonsensical – no child born today would, or even could, “live its entire life under the conditions of 2020”.  Life Expectancy at Birth (LE@B) is calculated using a classic and complex statistical model – and thus suffers all the upsides and downsides of models.  The major issue with this statistical model is that it is divorced from reality. 

The logic of these life expectancy numbers is problematic at best.  We know that a lot of people died from and with Covid-19 (and as a result of the measures put in place to fight the pandemic).   Those people died in what is now the past.   This report appears to be about life expectancy in the future in the United States.  That is a misunderstanding. The unusual and extreme number of deaths from Covid occurred in late-2020 (and early-2021) in this country are not continuing in the present and are not expected to continue in the future, they are a past event

Therefore, the cause of the decrease in life expectancy at birth for the year 2020 is in the past and will not affect the length of the future lives children born today.    LE@B will be lowish for 2021 as well, as the peak in Covid deaths runs from November 2020 thru March 2021.

It is almost always wise to get a longer view – to step back and look at a longer time period.

This graph is LE@B from 1860 to present.  Notice the drops at the American Civil War (1865) and the drop at World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic (~1915-1920).  World War II does not cause a visible drop because this data on this graph is of the averages of the five preceding years. For instance, the figure for 2020 is the average of the metric LE@B for the years 2016 through 2020.    And there at the upper right end of the blue trace is the drop for 2020 in perspective.  Some might find that the word used in many media headlines,  “plunge”,  to be an exaggeration.

Simple everyday logic demands that children born today will not suffer the cause of the drop in the metric LE@B for  2020 or 2021.   Nor, as can be seen in the graph above, did subsequent generations suffer from the horrific loss of life during the American Civil War or the Spanish Flu epidemic.  Children born in 1920, who were assigned a LE@B of about 55 to 56 years, had a real-world life-span that far exceeded that on average.  That born-in-1920-generation consisted of my generation’s parents.  My parents’ generation benefited from all the advances in hygiene, sanitation, health care, medicine and other general social and technical life improvements that took place during their lives – advances that were still in their future when they were born.       

We too, those of us living today, will likewise not suffer the loss-of-life that is now in the past but rather face the totally unknown threats of the future – and will benefit from currently-unknown positive advances in the same factors that increased the lives of our parents.

The touted Life Expectancy at Birth figure for 2020 is not a measure of how long children born today can be expected to live in their futures, but a measure of how long people lived last year.   It is not that past events don’t affect the future, but rather that the metric Life Expectancy at Birth is a measure of past life spans – not a prediction of present or future life spans.

The news about the LE@B figure from the CDC carries this stark statement:  “New federal data draws one of the starkest illustrations to date of how the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected Hispanic and Black Americans, showing that they suffered a far steeper drop in life expectancy in 2020 than white Americans.” and “From 2019 to 2020, Hispanic people experienced the greatest drop in life expectancy — three years — and Black Americans saw a decrease of 2.9 years. White people experienced the smallest decline, of 1.2 years.” [ source ]  

Half of that is true and half of it is a fantasy.

The Covid pandemic took the lives of a lot of people, and a lot of them were classified as black and Hispanic.  Whether those numbers were “disproportionate” I will gladly leave up to the epidemiologists and the statisticians.  But living black and Hispanic people neither “suffered” or “experienced” a drop in life expectancy.  It is only that the metric called LE@B changed for those two groups more than it changed for the group classified as non-Hispanic white.  The same is true for males versus females in general, with the LE@B metric moving more in a negative direction for males than females.  The most significant disproportionate effect of the Covid pandemic was that of deaths by age.  95% of deaths were of those over the age of 50.  Only 5% occurred for those under fifty and the majority of that 5% were deaths of people over 40.   American under the age of 40 accounted for only 1% of total deaths.

LE@B in the years just preceding the Covid pandemic was primarily affected by  . . .  drug overdose deaths.

“The overall reduction [in drug overdose deaths for 2018], reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggests some possible relief from an epidemic so severe that it has reduced life expectancy in the country.”   In 2018, there were 68,557 drug overdose deaths in the U.S..  In 2019, that figure was back up to 71,000 – 73% of which were caused not by prescription opioids but by a class of drugs called “synthetic opioids” – “These reports indicate that increases in synthetic opioid-involved deaths are being driven by increases in fentanyl-involved overdose deaths, and the source of the fentanyl is more likely to be illicitly manufactured than pharmaceutical.” [ source ]  In 2020, drug overdose deaths rose to nearly 90,000.  [ source ]    To be direct – drug overdose deaths in the United States are caused primarily by illicitly manufactured fentanyl (and fentanyl-analogs) – cheap, compact,  and relatively easy to produce – a white powder easily mixed with white powdered heroin or other powdered drugs like meth or cocaine, in which it is used to increase the “high” attained by users.   Unfortunately, fentanyl is so strong that even a tiny miscalculation in dosage when it is mixed into street drugs can be lethal – thus the increased number of overdose deaths.

Over the last few decades, increases in LE@B are credited to improved health care, drops in infant mortality (through improved prenatal care and improved techniques in dealing with premature births), and increased cancer-related survival. 

Bottom Lines:

1.  The Covid-19 pandemic caused a lot of deaths – both in the United States and around the world, similar to past influenza pandemics.  Worse than the Asian Influenza pandemic of the late 1950s which killed 1.1 million worldwide and 116,000 Americans and the Avian Influenza pandemic of 1968 which had similar death numbers.   Not as bad as the 1918-1920 Spanish Influenza pandemic. [ source ] Nothing in comparison to the Black Death (75 to 200 million deaths) or the ongoing HIV/AIDs pandemic (35+ million deaths as of 2018).

2.  The Covid-19 pandemic caused deaths in a particular pattern – taking the lives primarily of older people and those with specific serious comorbidities – heart problems, obesity, breathing problems.  Segments of the U.S. population that had a higher incidence of those comorbidities were hit harder.

3.  Deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – from the disease itself, from the additive effects of the disease to other comorbidities, and from the governmental actions intended to address the pandemic – has affected the metric called “Life Expectancy at Birth” – pushing it lower for 2020 than for 2019 (and will probably do so again for the metric for 2021).  This fact will not affect the life spans of the living or the soon-to-be-born in any way.

4.  Coincident with the Covid-19 pandemic is an ever-increasing, ongoing deadly Drug Overdose pandemic which is currently of the same magnitude as previous deadly influenza pandemics such as the Asian and Avian Influenza pandemics, and is now approaching 100,000 deaths per year in the United States.  This pandemic causes sufficient deaths to negatively affect the national metric Life Expectancy at Birth.  The difference is that this pandemic is not over, not ending or fading away but rather is getting worse, year by year.  [ source ]

5.  The Covid-19 pandemic will not be the last coronavirus or influenza pandemic.  It will not be the last deadly epidemic to sweep the world.   The future will throw up new and novel pathogens capable of sickening and killing human beings by the thousands and millions.  There is no escaping this aspect of life on Earth. 

6.  Be of good cheer – despite the problems of the day, things are getting better.  See:  “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think”.

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Author’s Comment:

In all things that involve numbers offered by scientists, governments, advocacy groups, the media and almost anyone else, it is increasingly important to know “What exactly are they really counting?”.

If you don’t really really know the answer to that question then my best advice is do one of two things: 

1.  Ignore the number altogether – this is by far the easiest approach and will not cause you any harm. 

or

2.  Dig in and find out for yourself.  This is the better approach.  Not everyone has the time,  the inclination or the ability.  It is often not easy as the answer to “What exactly are they really counting?” is often intentionally obscured by those who are creating and promulgating the number. (ref: Climate Science and many other scientific and social fields.)

We are all “just doing the best we can” (or, should be in any case). 

Thanks for reading. 

Read More, Read Widely, Read Critically.

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July 23, 2021 at 08:39PM

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