“The U.S. actually does well at keeping people alive once they’re really old,” she said, but it struggles to get its citizens to that point. They might die because of gun violence, car accidents, or heart disease and other metabolic disorders, or drug overdoses, suicides, and other deaths of despair. In all of these, the U.S. does worse than most equivalent countries, both by failing to address these problems directly and by leaving people more vulnerable to them to begin with.
Several studies, for example, have shown that America’s life expectancy has tailed behind other comparable countries since the 1970s. By 2010, that gap was already 1.9 years. By the end of 2021, it had grown to 5.3. And although many countries took a longevity hit because of COVID, America was once again exceptional: Among its peers, it experienced the largest life-expectancy decline in 2020 and, unlike its peers, continued declining in 2021. But Bor says that people often misinterpret life-expectancy declines, as if they simply represent a few years shaved off the end of a life. Someone might reasonably ask: What’s the big deal if I die at 76 versus 78? But in fact, life expectancy is falling behind other wealthy nations in large part because a lot of Americans are dying very young—in their 40s and 50s, rather than their 70s and 80s. The country is experiencing what Bor and his colleagues call “a crisis of early death”—a long-simmering tragedy that COVID took to a furious boil.
In every country, the coronavirus wrought greater damage upon the bodies of the elderly than the young. But this well-known trend hides a less obvious one: During the pandemic, half of the U.S.’s excess deaths—the missing Americans—were under 65 years old. Even though working-age Americans were less likely to die of COVID than older Americans, they fared considerably worse than similarly aged people in other countries. From 2019 to 2021, the number of working-age Americans who died increased by 233,000—and nine in 10 of those deaths wouldn’t have happened if the U.S. had mortality rates on par with its peers. “This is a damning finding,” Oni Blackstock, the founder and executive director of Health Justice, told me.
The coronavirus caused the largest single-year rise in mortality since World War II, becoming the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after only heart disease and cancer. But this enormous tragedy unfolded against an already tragic backdrop: The number of missing Americans from 2019 is larger than the number of people who were killed by COVID in 2020 or 2021. This isn’t to minimize COVID’s impact; it simply shows that in the Before Times, America had “very successfully normalized to an extremely high level of death on the scale of what we experienced in the pandemic,” Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist at Harvard, told me. And when COVID drove those levels skyward, America proved that “we’ll accept even more deaths compared to our already poor historical norms,” Feldman said.