Los Angeles, CA, July 7, 2022 — The life expectancy of Californians decreased by about three years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. However, life expectancies for Hispanic, Asian, and Black Californians decreased more than for White Californians, and the gap in life expectancies between those living in the highest income census tracts and the lowest income census tracts increased, from a difference of about 11 ½ years before the pandemic, to more than 15 years in 2021.
In their analysis of 1.9 million deaths in California between 2015 and 2021, the multi-campus research team calculated that life expectancy for Californians fell from 81.40 years in 2019 to 79.20 years in 2020 and down to 78.37 years in 2021.This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that the reduction in life expectancy continued from 2020 into 2021, despite the availability of vaccines for much of 2021.
Life expectancy is not the average lifespan of individuals in a society, but a hypothetical measure based solely on the mortality rates observed in a given year. It estimates how long a cohort of newborns could expect to live if it experienced the mortality rates of that specific year throughout their entire lifetimes. Life expectancy captures how much life was lost collectively within a population during the pandemic years and it illustrates the dramatic differences of the pandemic impact across communities of different socio-economic status.
Hispanic populations in California lost 5.7 years of life expectancy between 2019 and 2021, while Black populations lost 3.8 years, Asian populations lost 3 years, and White populations lost 1.9 years, according to the study. During this time, income also became more tightly correlated with life expectancy than it had been previously.
“Our findings are another, troubling sign of how the pandemic’s impact was not felt evenly across all communities,” explains co-author Till von Wachter, faculty director of the California Policy Lab’s UCLA site and a UCLA economics professor. “Policymakers can use these findings to craft a more equitable response now, and also to inform how we plan for future public health crises.”
“We’ve had indications that the pandemic affected economically disadvantaged people more strongly, but we never really had numbers on actual life expectancy loss across the income spectrum,” comments lead author, Hannes Schwandt, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. “I am shocked by how big the differences were, and the degree of inequality that they reflected.”
The study is based on an analysis of restricted death data, obtained from the California Comprehensive Death Files maintained by the California Department of Health.
In both 2020 and 2021, decreases in life expectancy were larger in the lowest income census tracts.
Life expectancy in California by census tract median household income percentile, 2015–2021
“In California, Hispanic individuals have historically lived longer than White individuals, but the pandemic upended that, as the life expectancy for Hispanic Californians decreased by about six years, three times as high as the decline for White Californians,” explains co-author Jonathan Kowarski, a co-author, research fellow at the California Policy Lab and a PhD student at UCLA.
In addition to Hannes Schwandt, Till von Wachter, and Jonathan Kowarski, authors of the paper “Changes in the Relationship Between Income and Life Expectancy Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, California, 2015–2021,” include Janet Currie of Princeton University, and Steven H Woolf and Derek Chapman of Virginia Commonwealth University.
Table: Life Expectancy by race and ethnicity in California, 2019-2021
Table note: Race and ethnicity information is generally obtained from an “informant” (close relative, friend, or acquaintance with the deceased). That information is categorized into mutually exclusive categories. In this analysis, all individuals who were identified as Hispanic ethnicity (by the informant) were included in the Hispanic category. Individuals who were categorized as multiracial were excluded from this analysis.