NEW YORK – 2021 was the deadliest year in American history, and new data and research provide more insight into how it got so bad.
The main reason for the increase in deaths? COVID-19, said Robert Anderson, who oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s work on death statistics.
This month, the agency has quietly updated its preliminary death toll. It showed that there were 3,465 million deaths last year, or about 80,000 more than 2020’s record setting total.
Early last year, some experts were optimistic that 2021 would not be as bad as the first year of the pandemic – in part because effective COVID-19 vaccines had finally become available.
“Unfortunately, we were wrong,” said Noreen Goldman, a Princeton University researcher.
COVID-19 deaths rose in 2021 – to more than 415,000, up from 351,000 the year before – when new coronavirus variants emerged and an unexpectedly large number of Americans refused to be vaccinated or hesitated to wear masks, experts said.
Corona virus is not the only culprit. Preliminary CDC data also show that the raw mortality rate for cancer increased slightly and rates continued to rise for diabetes, chronic liver disease and stroke.
Deaths from drug overdoses also continued to rise. The CDC does not yet have a figure for overdose deaths in 2021 because it can take weeks of laboratory work and research to identify them. But preliminary data for October suggest the nation is on track to see at least 105,000 overdose deaths in 2021 – up from 93,000 the year before.
New research published on Tuesday showed a particularly large jump in overdose deaths among 14- to 18-year-olds.
The death toll from adolescent overdose has been fairly constant for most of the last decade, about 500 a year, according to the paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. They nearly doubled in 2020 to 954, and researchers estimated that the total number hit nearly 1,150 last year.
Joseph Friedman, a UCLA researcher who was the paper’s lead author, called the increase “out of place.”
These overdose deaths for teens were only about 1% of the total number in the United States. However, teens experienced a larger relative increase than the overall population, although studies suggest that drug use among teens has declined.
Experts attributed the increase to fentanyl, a very deadly drug that has been cut into heroin for several years. Recently, it has also been squeezed into counterfeit pills that look like prescription drugs that teens sometimes abuse.
National mortality trends affect life expectancy – an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year can expect to live.
With rare exceptions, life expectancy in the United States has increased reliably year after year. But the CDC’s life expectancy for 2020 was about 77 years – more than a year and a half lower than it was in 2019.
The CDC has not yet reported its calculation for 2021. But Goldman and some other researchers have made their own estimates, presented in articles that have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals.
These researchers believe that life expectancy in the United States fell another five or six months in 2021 – putting it back to where it was 20 years ago.
A loss of more than two years of life expectancy over the past two years “is colossal,” Goldman said.
A study looked at death data in the United States and 19 other high-income countries. The United States did the worst.
“What happened in the United States is less about the variants than the level of resistance to vaccination and public rejection of practices, such as masking and mandates, to reduce virus transmission,” said one of the study’s authors, Dr. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a statement.
Some experts are skeptical that life expectancy will return soon. They worry about long-term complications of COVID-19 that can accelerate the death of people with chronic health problems.
Preliminary – and incomplete – CDC data suggest there were at least 805,000 U.S. deaths in about the first three months of this year. It is well below the same period last year, but higher than the comparable period in 2020.
“We may end up with a ‘new normal’ that is a little higher than it was before,” Anderson said.
The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.