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Washington and Oregon among states with longest life expectancy, but pandemic hurt

CDC graphic of state-by-state life expectancy 21.png
Many of the best states for life expectancy of a child born in 2020 were in the American West.

Washington and Oregon rank in the top ten states for the longest life expectancy, according to new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The high rankings come with the caveat that the pandemic has thrown lengthening human lifespans into reverse across the U.S.

It is clear that if you want to live long and prosper, the Pacific Northwest is a fine place. Washingtonians have the second longest life expectancy of any state in the nation, behind only Hawaii. Oregonians are not far behind in eighth place and Idaho comes in eleventh.

According to the new data published by the Centers for Disease Control, a child born in Washington or Oregon in 2020 can expect to live around 79 years. That’s two years longer than the national average. The life expectancy for an Idaho child born in 2020 is closer to 78 years.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic though, life expectancy has declined in all 50 states.

“Certainly, there was some state variation in the change in life expectancy,” said mortality statistics chief Robert Anderson on a podcast recorded by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. “But overall, COVID-19 was the primary factor.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that because there’s some other things going on,” Anderson continued. “We saw increases for some other causes of death (i.e., heart disease, liver disease and suicide) and of course increases in drug overdose deaths also had an impact.”

The decline in life expectancy was less pronounced in the Northwest states, but still the excess deaths during the first year of the pandemic shaved about a year off the expected lifespan of people in this region. Anderson said the smaller drops in lifespans recorded in Washington, Oregon and Idaho corresponded with lower-than-average COVID death rates in the region.

A provisional analysis by the CDC of 2021 data showed that life expectancy continued to drop nationwide as the pandemic dragged on.

“Life expectancy for Americans in 2021 fell to the lowest level in a quarter of a century – 76.1 years, the same level it was in 1996,” CDC staff wrote on the National Center for Health Statistics blog on Thursday.

The health agency has not yet teased out state-by-state numbers from its national analysis of the immediate past year.

As is the case everywhere, females outlive males. The average woman in the Northwest is predicted to live four to five years longer than the average male. Anderson said that gap has widened during the pandemic.

“We do know that men were disproportionately affected by the pandemic – I mean COVID-19 death rates were higher for men than for women,” Anderson said. “So, it’s not surprising that we would see a slightly larger disparity between males and females.”

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.