Changes in the Relationship between Income and Life Expectancy before and during the COVID-19 Pandemic, California, 2015-2021

Hannes Schwandt, Janet Currie, Till Von Wachter, Jonathan Kowarski, Derek Chapman, Steven H. Woolf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations

Abstract

Importance: The COVID-19 pandemic caused a large decrease in US life expectancy in 2020, but whether a similar decrease occurred in 2021 and whether the relationship between income and life expectancy intensified during the pandemic are unclear. Objective: To measure changes in life expectancy in 2020 and 2021 and the relationship between income and life expectancy by race and ethnicity. Design, Setting, and Participants: Retrospective ecological analysis of deaths in California in 2015 to 2021 to calculate state- A nd census tract-level life expectancy. Tracts were grouped by median household income (MHI), obtained from the American Community Survey, and the slope of the life expectancy-income gradient was compared by year and by racial and ethnic composition. Exposures: California in 2015 to 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic) and 2020 to 2021 (during the COVID-19 pandemic). Main Outcomes and Measures: Life expectancy at birth. Results: California experienced 1988606 deaths during 2015 to 2021, including 654887 in 2020 to 2021. State life expectancy declined from 81.40 years in 2019 to 79.20 years in 2020 and 78.37 years in 2021. MHI data were available for 7962 of 8057 census tracts (98.8%; n = 1899065 deaths). Mean MHI ranged from $21279 to $232261 between the lowest and highest percentiles. The slope of the relationship between life expectancy and MHI increased significantly, from 0.075 (95% CI, 0.07-0.08) years per percentile in 2019 to 0.103 (95% CI, 0.098-0.108; P <.001) years per percentile in 2020 and 0.107 (95% CI, 0.102-0.112; P <.001) years per percentile in 2021. The gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest percentiles increased from 11.52 years in 2019 to 14.67 years in 2020 and 15.51 years in 2021. Among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Asian, Black, and White populations, life expectancy declined 5.74 years among the Hispanic population, 3.04 years among the non-Hispanic Asian population, 3.84 years among the non-Hispanic Black population, and 1.90 years among the non-Hispanic White population between 2019 and 2021. The income-life expectancy gradient in these groups increased significantly between 2019 and 2020 (0.038 [95% CI, 0.030-0.045; P <.001] years per percentile among Hispanic individuals; 0.024 [95% CI: 0.005-0.044; P =.02] years per percentile among Asian individuals; 0.015 [95% CI, 0.010-0.020; P <.001] years per percentile among Black individuals; and 0.011 [95% CI, 0.007-0.015; P <.001] years per percentile among White individuals) and between 2019 and 2021 (0.033 [95% CI, 0.026-0.040; P <.001] years per percentile among Hispanic individuals; 0.024 [95% CI, 0.010-0.038; P =.002] years among Asian individuals; 0.024 [95% CI, 0.011-0.037; P =.003] years per percentile among Black individuals; and 0.013 [95% CI, 0.008-0.018; P <.001] years per percentile among White individuals). The increase in the gradient was significantly greater among Hispanic vs White populations in 2020 and 2021 (P <.001 in both years) and among Black vs White populations in 2021 (P =.04). Conclusions and Relevance: This retrospective analysis of census tract-level income and mortality data in California from 2015 to 2021 demonstrated a decrease in life expectancy in both 2020 and 2021 and an increase in the life expectancy gap by income level relative to the prepandemic period that disproportionately affected some racial and ethnic minority populations. Inferences at the individual level are limited by the ecological nature of the study, and the generalizability of the findings outside of California are unknown.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)360-366
Number of pages7
JournalJAMA - Journal of the American Medical Association
Volume328
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 26 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Medicine(all)

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