Americans lost 5.5 million collective years of life to COVID-19, Pew says

The novel coronavirus has caused an estimated loss of nearly 5.5 million years of life in the U.S. in 2020 alone, according to a report from the Pew Research Center published this week.

Pew researchers say that COVID-19 contributed to more lost years of life for Americans than all accidental deaths combined in a typical year. 

Since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, more than 600,000 Americans have lost their lives to the deadly virus and approximately 380,000 Americans died in 2020 alone from COVID-19. 

Pew researchers say COVID-19 deaths dwarfed deaths by accidents, stroke, diabetes, liver disease and Alzheimer’s. 

Cancer and heart disease are the only causes of death that caused a loss of life greater than COVID-19, according to provisional data from the end of 2019 and some of 2020. 

In order to reach the findings, Pew researchers say they compared life years lost to COVID-19 in 2020 with data of other mortality rates in 2019 because detailed analysis of deaths for 2020 is not yet available. 

"It’s important to note that the estimated number of life years lost to COVID-19 in 2020 is not based on a full calendar year of data," Pew researchers said. 

RELATED: US life expectancy drops a full year in COVID-19 pandemic, most since WWII

Researchers added that the COVID-19 pandemic killed many Americans who otherwise might have expected to live for years — even decades — longer. 

This is because life expectancy increases with age, researchers say. The United Nations World Population Prospects explain that while babies born in the U.S. today typically can expect to live to be 79, Americans who are 65 today can expect to live to be 85. 

"A 65-year-old who dies from COVID-19 might ordinarily have expected to live until 85 – a difference of two decades, or roughly a quarter of the average American’s total expected life span at birth," Pew researchers said. 

In 2019, life expectancy in the U.S. inched up for a second consecutive year, but they were small gains that were likely to be erased by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The nation’s overall mortality rate fell a bit in 2019, due to reductions in heart disease and cancer deaths. And life expectancy inched up — by several weeks — for the second straight year in 2019, according to data released on Dec. 22, 2020 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

RELATED: COVID-19 pandemic’s death toll could shorten life expectancy in US by as much as 3 years

And just as experts warned, COVID-19 caused life expectancy in the U.S. to drop a staggering one year during the first half of 2020. It was the largest decline since World War II. 

Minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing nearly three years and Hispanics, nearly two years, according to preliminary estimates released on Feb. 18, 2021 from the CDC.

"This is a huge decline," said Robert Anderson, who oversees the numbers for the CDC. "You have to go back to World War II, the 1940s, to find a decline like this."

Other health experts say it shows the profound impact of COVID-19, not just on deaths directly due to infection but also from heart disease, cancer and other conditions.

"What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year... I would expect that these numbers would only get worse," said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco.

Life expectancy is how long a baby born today can expect to live, on average. In the first half of last year, that was 77.8 years for Americans overall, down one year from 78.8 in 2019. For males it was 75.1 years and for females, 80.5 years.

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.